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After state takeover news, Houston ISD clams up, leaving parents and teachers scrambling for insight

The state's announcement that it will seize control of its largest school system has been met with notable silence from Houston ISD administrators and local elected officials.

Erin Pickens, a 4th grade teacher for Buffalo ISD, helps a student in her classroom in Buffalo on March 28, 2019.

Two days after Texas education officials announced plans to seize control of the state’s largest public school system, the Houston Independent School District finds itself enveloped in a fog of muted uncertainty.

Officially, the district has issued nothing beyond a terse, two-sentence statement acknowledging the news. The district’s interim superintendent isn’t commenting publicly. The nine members of its elected school board — whose combative, dysfunctional behavior helped prompt the state takeover — have largely fallen silent. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner has commented only in passing on the unprecedented decision.

That has left community leaders, parents and teachers to scour social media and news reports, searching for clues about what the future holds for the more than 200,000 students who attend more than 270 Houston ISD schools.

“I don’t know whether we’re worse off here or worse off in the unknown,” said Sineria Ordóñez, whose son is a kindergartener in Poe Elementary’s bilingual program.

In a strongly worded letter, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced Wednesday that he will oust the district's elected school board and replace it with a state-appointed board of managers. The elected board’s repeated violations of state law, and the longstanding academic failure of one high school, compelled drastic state action, Morath wrote. The state will also appoint a superintendent.

“People are just like, ‘Hold on, what? What’s going on?’”

— Karina Quesada-León, Houston ISD parent activist

Rocketing forward with what is expected to be a lengthy, complex process, the education agency immediately began accepting applications from community members to sit on the appointed board, and it scheduled a slate of community meetings at local schools. A lawsuit filed by Houston ISD seeking to stave off a state takeover that was filed before Morath's decision will also continue in federal court, and two new school board members who won election the day before Morath's announcement may have little time in power before the state steps in.

The takeover will play out within Houston's fractured political scene, and local education activists are already setting firm stakes in the political terrain.

A state takeover is an “opportunity to reset the culture of governance at HISD and lift the entire system,” according to Bob Harvey, CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership, which represents the region’s business officials.

To others, it’s a clear “power grab to disenfranchise families in Houston,” especially families of color, said Zeph Capo, president of Texas’ chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. The teachers union and factions of parent advocate groups warn that the appointed board will likely hand over low-performing schools to private organizations and charter operators.

Turner, asked about the takeover at an unrelated press conference, said, “If the state moves forward, then they will have the responsibility of demonstrating to the parents and the students and the community that they can do better than the elected board has."

But for teachers and parents who are less politically active, the potential advantages and pitfalls of a state takeover are less definite.

Almost no one at Emerson Elementary School was talking about the news this week, too busy with preparing lesson plans and boosting student test scores, said Huyenchau Vu, a fourth grade teacher. But a flurry of questions came to mind when she found out about the takeover through a social media post: Would her salary or health insurance change? Would there be even more pressure to get high standardized test scores?

“I constantly hear that phrase, ‘It’s been a long time coming,’” she said.

Karina Quesada-León, a Houston ISD parent and local activist, is fervently against a state takeover. But her attempts to explain the matter to other parents have garnered confused looks and concern. “I don’t know that I’ve had conversations where I’m getting to the point where people are asking questions,” she said. “People are just like, ‘Hold on, what? What’s going on?’”

That certainly was the case for Tasha August, the parent of a fourth grade student at Sherman Elementary. She wants more from district leaders, like less frequent replacements of her daughter’s principals and more after-school activities.

But she hadn’t heard the news of a takeover Thursday or read about any of the allegations against the school board. “I didn’t know it was that bad that the state was taking over,” she said.

And Ordóñez, whose son just started kindergarten, wants to know that he will be able to grow in a school district that isn’t at a standstill or moving backward. “We know that a loss of one year is more than one year in terms of education and learning,” she said.

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