Houston Joins Cities Fighting Potential State Takeovers

HOUSTON (AP) -- In four years of Houston schools being under threat of one of the biggest state takeovers ever in the U.S., teacher Arnetta Murray says the district has come a long way.

As Houston braces for a decision from the state on whether it will seize control of public schools in Texas' largest city, Murray thinks the fight isn't just about failing grades.

"I think that we focus on changing the narrative and doing different and sharing that, 'Hey why is Gov. (Greg) Abbott attacking Houston?" said Murray, 57, who teaches special education at a middle school where most students are classified as economically disadvantaged. "Why is it? Is it money? Is it politics?'"

Classrooms are not the only place where Houston officials and residents are scrambling to hold the line against potential takeovers that the city's Democratic leaders see as driven by politics in a state where Republicans control the Statehouse and governor's office. Election fumbles and accusations that local leaders unlawfully reduced spending on law enforcement are also igniting potential interventions from Republicans, who have been losing ground around Houston over the last decade.

Intertwined in this are issues of race as Houston has a large Black and Hispanic population.

Houston is the largest city in the U.S. where potential takeovers of local institutions are roiling heavily minority communities, including St. Louis and Washington, D.C. It's also an extension of a broader fight in the U.S. of statehouses flexing control over municipalities.

What's different in Houston, local leaders say, is the range of efforts aimed at controlling how America's fourth-largest city -- home to over 2 million people -- runs classrooms, elections and budgets.

Republicans reject accusations of politics, saying they have a duty to act.

"What you're seeing is just specific fights about, quite frankly, what is the best public policy," said Republican state Sen. Paul Bettencourt of Houston, who is a carrying a bill that would allow the state to take over a local elections office for cause.

"Do you want to have defunded police or not? Do you want to have competent elections administration or not? Do you want to have an uncorrupt school board of your largest district or not? That's really what the fights are about," he said.

Renée Cross, the senior executive director of the Hobby School of Public Affairs at the University of Houston, said it could be 10 to 20 years before the tension eases up between the GOP-run state government and Texas' Democratically run large metropolitan areas, including Houston.

"Until the Legislature is a little more diverse in terms of partisanship, I think we're going to continue to see these efforts," Cross said.

It is unclear when the state will make a decision about the Houston Independent School District, which with nearly 200,000 students is the eighth-largest in the U.S. Teachers and administrators have been on edge since Mayor Sylvester Turner said at a City Council meeting this month that a takeover could be imminent, citing conversations with Houston legislators.

The decision is up to the Texas Education Agency, which said in a statement that it was still determining next steps that "best support the students, teachers, parents, and school community." A spokesperson for Abbott, who appoints the state's education commissioner, did not return a message seeking comment.

A takeover of Houston schools would be one of the largest ever in the country, said Beth Schueler, an assistant professor of education and public policy at the University of Virginia.

The state began considering the move in 2019, following allegations of misconduct by school trustees, including inappropriate influencing of vendor contracts, and years of chronically low academic scores at one of its roughly 50 high schools. Since August 2016, the district has had three superintendents.

The district sued to block intervention, but changes in state law in response to the lawsuit and a ruling by the Texas Supreme Court in January cleared a path for the takeover.

When the district's board of trustees voted to officially end their lawsuit Thursday, one board member, Elizabeth Santos, tearfully said: "It is time for the community to come together and win by uniting our voices at the Legislature and our neighborhood schools and at the ballot box."

Local leaders acknowledge the district has had problems but say a takeover now would ignore recent improvements, including reducing the number of low-rated schools from 50 to 10.

But some Houston residents still have concerns.

Nikki Keyser, a local community activist, said she does not think the current superintendent, Millard House II, is right for the job, believing the interim superintendent he replaced was responsible in part for recent strides and should have been given the job.

"When you're held accountable for your behavior, these are the things that happens with our children's district and the only people that are suffering are our parents and our children," said Keyser, executive director of the Simply H.E.R. Movement, a nonprofit which helps provide food and housing to needy residents.

The takeover fight that has gotten the most attention in the U.S. is in Mississippi, where the state's predominately white legislative body is pushing for an expanded role for state police and appointed judges inside the majority-Black capital of Jackson.

Hispanics are the largest demographic group in Harris County, which is home to Houston. It also has a large Black population. When Republicans approved new voting restrictions in 2021 that outlawed expanded voting options that Houston had put in place, Democrats called it an attack on minority voters.

Turner is finishing up his final term as mayor, and the leading contenders in the officially nonpartisan election to succeed him are all Democrats.

He took part in a recent rally for the district, where some said the recent confrontations with the state were at least partly due to partisanship.

"We are dealing with people functioning on the extremes and therefore they believe they can come in and take over the largest school district in the state of Texas ... and people are going to be all right with that?" Turner told The Associated Press. "No, I beg to differ."