Op-Ed: A school district takeover at any cost

by | May 5, 2021 | Education, Policy

A pair of bills approaching a vote in the Texas House will significantly expand state power over local school districts. The bills, authored by Senator Bettencourt and Representative Dutton, are aimed at Houston ISD but will impact all public school districts in the state. The two legislators are impatient for the Texas Education Agency to take over HISD. The district is the first to fight the TEA in court, delaying the change in control for the past year. 

Bettencourt and Dutton aim directly at HISD’s lawsuit against TEA with legislation designed to derail it. Their bills HB 3270 and SB 1365, soon to be voted in the Texas House, reverse-engineer the takeover rules to ensure the lawsuit will fail and no one ever tries legal action again. HISD will have an appointed board of managers at any cost.

The bills deny court access, pronouncing TEA conclusions “final and unappealable.” Affronted that HISD has the gumption and the funds to fight TEA in court, they prohibit funding a legal defense. Their bills make it a Class C misdemeanor to vote for such funding, criminalizing and threatening school board trustees.

This expansion of state power over local government is designed specifically for Houston, but would apply to all public districts in Texas.  

A few years ago, I was among a large group of citizens attending an HISD board meeting. At issue was a proposal to privatize ten schools, turning them over to one charter operator. Our political action was widely reported. The Chronicle later investigated the charter operator, who had siphoned $17 million from her schools. The board dropped the privatization proposal.

This is what democracy looks like. Under a TEA-Greg Abbott-appointed management board, the managers won’t need to respond to citizens. Their boss will be in Austin. They could indefinitely extend COVID prohibitions on in-person attendance at meetings.  School activists, teachers, and parents would watch every meeting from the sidelines on Zoom. 

A board of managers could close schools and sell the real estate to developers; buy less valuable real estate from developers; privatize schools and convert them to charters; select a new superintendent; rename schools and facilities. Working with their chosen superintendent and HISD’s $2 billion budget, they could control contractor awards. All this they would do with no risk. Their jobs are secure. HISD will receive many millions in COVID relief—the board of managers could arrive just in time to spend it.

How long would the board of managers stay? There is no rule for this. In other takeovers, TEA has generally stayed five years, then gradually replaced appointees with elected board members over still more years. But HISD is far larger and more complex than any past takeover target, with a giant budget. Usurping power from local governments is now Governor Abbott’s signature move. The striking aggression of these bills indicates an intense drive to gain control over HISD. However long they stay, the board of managers’ policies will be firmly embedded before they agree to leave.

A state-appointed board of managers is how Flint ended up with lead in the water. When citizens lose representation in local government, there is no accountability. How does democracy make a comeback?

Dutton and Bettencourt’s bills would also significantly expand the TEA commissioner’s power to investigate public schools and force a takeover. Accreditation inspections would be replaced with unlimited “special investigations,” initiated at the TEA commissioner’s discretion. Disciplinary action would also be discretionary, including takeovers. The rules would be retroactive, supporting TEA’s takeover of HISD. 

However, the investigations would not affect charter schools. In the fine print, the bills move the investigations rules of the Education Code to a section that does not apply to charter schools. 

Operated by unelected boards and private corporations, charter schools are well-insulated from accountability. Bettencourt and Dutton want the state to disclaim its authority to investigate complaints about charters. If a parent had evidence of fraud, they would literally have to make it a federal case.

Dutton understands the risk to charters posed by TEA investigations. In 2008, he defended the operator of Gulf Shores Academy, a charter school that owed over $10 million to the state for significantly overstating student attendance. Dutton’s client was sentenced to two years for faking transcripts.  

Investigations and takeovers for you, but not for me. That is Dutton and Bettencourt’s approach.

These bills autocratically expand state power over local public schools and education agencies, with a nifty oversight exemption for charter schools worked into the fine print. Far too much discretionary power would be given to the unelected TEA commissioner. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Please, contact your legislative representatives and ask them to oppose these bills. Talk to your school board members, too—while you still have them!

Sarah Terrell is a school activist and the parent of three graduates of HISD schools

Photo: Henry Han / Wikimedia Commons

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