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Civil rights organizations file federal complaint against Texas’ takeover of Houston ISD


Civil rights organizations file federal complaint against Texas’ takeover of Houston ISD

Mar 31, 2023 | 1:42 pm ET
By Brian Lopez
Civil rights organizations file federal complaint against Texas’ takeover of Houston ISD
A crowd at Cesar Chavez High School chants against the state's takeover of the Houston school district on Friday, March 31, 2023. (Douglas Sweet Jr. for The Texas Tribune)

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Civil rights organizations have filed a federal complaint on behalf of several parents against the Texas Education Agency because of its plan to replace the Houston Independent School District’s democratically elected school board, claiming the move takes away the rights of Houston voters of color to choose their own school officials.

The complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice Friday morning, with a claim by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Houston NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice that the state’s takeover violates the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.

“The state takeover is not about public education but about political control of an almost entirely Black and brown student body in one of the country’s most diverse cities,” Ashley Harris, an attorney at the ACLU of Texas, said in a news release announcing the complaint.

The complaint says that the TEA could hold “indefinite power” over Houston ISD without any structures in place for voters to hold the agency and its appointed board members accountable.

“The state takeover is insulting to so many Houston voters like me who canvass for candidates we care about and take our local elections seriously. Apparently our choice never mattered in the first place,” said Audrey Nath, one of the Houston ISD parents represented in the complaint.

The TEA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Houston ISD, with 276 schools and an enrollment of nearly 200,000 students, is the largest district the agency has taken over.

Some families worry that communication with the TEA about the district’s management will be poor after agency officials did not take any questions during their first meeting with the community about the takeover.

The TEA announced on March 15 that it would replace the district’s current superintendent, Millard House II, and the school board with its own “board of managers” in response to years of poor academic outcomes.

The takeover was set in motion in 2019 after Phillis Wheatley High School received failing grades in the TEA’s accountability rating system for five years in a row. A court injunction delayed any action from the TEA until this year.

TEA Commissioner Mike Morath has said a Texas law passed in 2015 mandates that he either close the failing campus or appoint a new board of managers, effectively taking over the whole district.

The commissioner decides how long the board will be in place. The agency’s past takeovers of other districts have usually lasted two to six years.

TEA is seeking nine people who live within the district to sit in its board of managers starting June 1.

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