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The State Will Take Over Houston's Independent School District

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The school district in Houston, Texas, faces an unprecedented move. Texas officials announced a complete takeover of one of the largest school districts in America. They announced this even though the district came very close to earning an A grade in the latest state report card. So why take it over? Houston Public Media's Laura Isensee has the story.

LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: This year, veteran educator Kerry Petty started a new job teaching digital media in Houston. But during his first week, he learned the state could take over the entire district, which has over 200,000 students.

KERRY PETTY: And I was like, whoa. I'm have - thinking a flashback of New Orleans and back home in Detroit, what happened in Detroit public schools.

ISENSEE: Petty has taught in New Orleans and Michigan and saw states intervene there. In Houston, this threat has loomed over the nation's seventh-largest district for over two years, but it touches Petty's school, Wheatley High, directly. So when class started, he heard even more about it.

PETTY: Well, the students have been up in a frenzy. They are just, are we opening? Are we closing? What's going on? So they're a little bit - some anxiety there. There's - some teachers have some anxiety.

ISENSEE: A state law says if even one school fails state standards for five or more years, the Texas education commissioner must close the campus or replace the entire district's elected board. And Wheatley High, a historically black school that's produced members of Congress, prominent athletes and celebrities, has failed seven times in a row.

PETTY: My guard was up. Like, we got to stay focused on this. We can't, like, sit back.

ISENSEE: Petty says their anxiety hasn't calmed down since Commissioner Mike Morath announced this month he plans to oust the nine-member school board and appoint outside managers - one reason, Wheatley High's chronic low performance, something Morath hinted at this fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE MORATH: And the unfortunate truth is some of the schools that we have are not good enough for my kids or your kids or the kids that are in them.

ISENSEE: Morath says another reason for his decision - state investigators found widespread misconduct among board members. That's a major reason why the Houston business community backs the takeover. Here's Bob Harvey with the Greater Houston Partnership addressing members.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOB HARVEY: We think the Houston Independent School District board's long-term failure to consistently support all of our schools, all of our kids, warrants new leadership at HISD.

ISENSEE: But some teachers and advocates say Houston voters have already fixed that problem when they elected four new board members this November. They made it clear at a recent community meeting at Wheatley High they want to choose their own representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: You're taking the control of our local school district from the people who don't have a voice.

ISENSEE: Michelle Williams has taught for 20 years. She asked, who will hold appointed managers accountable?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: What if we don't like them? Then what process do we have?

(APPLAUSE)

ISENSEE: Texas education administrators promised new managers will get robust training and support, and they'll reflect Houston's diverse community. That hasn't convinced Williams.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAMS: I don't see how it's going to work.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

WILLIAMS: I see, in our future, the district getting worse because the teachers who are committed, the parents who were committed may not stay because of this sanction.

ISENSEE: The Houston school board and the teachers union are trying to stop the takeover in court. In a joint federal lawsuit, their attorneys claim it disenfranchises Hispanic and black voters in the district. The union has also called the takeover a way to privatize public education with more charter schools. Still, teachers like Kerry Petty say they plan to focus on their students.

PETTY: I'm not going to walk out of here. Trust me that - I will still be here, teach everyday like it's my last. So I'm not going anywhere.

ISENSEE: But he wants answers, like, what would a state board put at the top of their agenda? For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAX TAILOR'S "ROAD IS RUFF") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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