Educational Equity: A Community Position to Fight TEA Takeover

We are the students, parents, teachers, community members, tax payers, activists and advocates of education in Houston, Texas. We are the immediate stakeholders of Houston Independent School District and we must demand the ability to maintain our democratic right to elect our own school board. It is more important than ever that we come together, as one community, to protect the schools that have been historically underfunded and underserved by the state of Texas. While we denounce the unethical behavior of the current school board, let us also acknowledge the history of wrongs committed by the state and our local school board that have created an environment that is no longer conducive to the educational success of economically, socially and mentally disadvantaged children. The children of Houston deserve more than mere survival. Our children deserve to thrive.

For the sake of our children, we must hold firmly to the beliefs that:

1. Our children are not failures but are being failed by the state and our current school board.

2. No lasting change will occur without addressing the social factors that directly affect our children’s ability to learn.

3. We deserve the right to recall school board trustees for malfeasance and nonfeasance.

In 2018 the U.S. Department of Education concluded that the State of Texas violated federal law by failing to ensure students with disabilities were properly evaluated and provided with public education. The report findings confirmed that the TEA was more likely to monitor school districts with higher rates of students in special education and school districts would receive less monitoring if they met a state mandated benchmark that only 8.5% of the students they served would be identified as needing special education. Texas also had a policy, which was determined to be illegal, that mandated students with dyslexia had to have another in order to receive federally funded services. The federal investigation into the TEA’s violations of federal law was prompted by a series of reports from the Houston Chronicle. This report identifies a system that was devised, by non elected officials, that dates back to 2004. Children who have learning disabilities such as dyslexia, emotional and mental illness, brain injuries, vison and hearing deficits and much more were being denied the federally funded educational support they need to thrive. This system also targeted English language learners who make up a disproportionally high rate of children who are underserved. The children who are denied these services are still expected to participate in high stakes testing that is used as an indicator of student success. The results of high stakes testing are used to justify school closures and state takeovers. The population of Phyllis Wheatley High School that falls under the umbrella of special education has fluctuated between 19% to 21% from 2013 to 2018.

The TEA’s failure to provide adequate services to our children with special needs will not be dismissed or forgotten.

The schools in HISD that have been placed on the improvement required (IR) list are overwhelmingly Black and brown. These schools are usually in low income areas and are hit hardest by socioeconomic factors. It should be noted that 74% of the Wheatley student body were determine to be economically disadvantaged in 2018 and 18% of their population are English language learners. Wheatley High School has been on the IR list for seven years but the state has been failing them for much longer. A report, Poverty and Potential: Out of School Factors and School Success, was released by The Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice. This report has been highlighted by the National Education Association and it argues that “problems related to poverty occur simultaneously with great frequency and act cumulatively in schools serving disadvantaged communities…attempts to drive change through test based accountability are unlikely to succeed unless accompanied by policies to address the out of school factors that affect students.” There have been no real efforts to reduce the socioeconomic disparities in the Wheatley community.

Social stressors such as lack of pay equality, affordable housing, lack of health care access, environmental racism and food insecurity challenge the fundamentals of life.

These truths are data supported but Texas chooses to ignore data and science and seek to penalize Black and Brown communities. Now, the state has saddled TEA takeover on the backs of stressed communities and further relegated them to a place of shame and self-doubt.

The letter TEA commissioner, Mike Morath, sent to Superintendent Grenita Lathan and school board president Diana Davila states, “ I believe the community is in the best position to effectuate long term positive change for the district.” He made this statement to compel the community and school board to comply with his decision to install a board of managers and remove our right to democratic process. We must argue that the removal of our democratically elected board and his stated belief are mutually exclusive. His words are as hollow as the template he so disrespectfully uses to usurp power from Black and Brown communities. The Houston community has sounded the alarm and voiced our need for change for years. Our pleas have fallen on deaf ears here locally and in Austin. If the community had the ability to recall school board trustees, we would have already done so. Furthermore, we made it crystal clear that we are disgusted by the board’s nefarious behavior when we voted to replace the four seats up for re- election last week. If the current governor and education commissioner truly believe in public education and accountability of elected school board trustees, they would not hesitate to put the power back into the hands of the people. Houston, Texas has a city charter. The residents of Houston voted on our charter and within it is a recall provision. It is not difficult to deduce that our city believes that egregious abuses of power and failure to abide by the code of office should result in the recall of an elected official.

The civic power of recall should be extended to school board trustees, here in Houston and all over the state of Texas.

The governor’s party proclaims to believe in local control and less government interference in local affairs. Yet, it refuses to legislate power to the people. It is nonsensical to choose to close schools and revoke our democratic rights over allowing communities to maintain our God given right to oversee and steer our children’s growth. Gov. Greg Abbott and Commissioner Mike Morath do not know what is best for us, better than us.

As we face the coming days, we will hear our truths manipulated by the TEA. The commissioner and his deputies will attempt to convince us that our children have been given every opportunity to succeed. They will try to convince us that our children and our communities are failures. Don’t believe them. They will spin a false narrative that holds us accountable for the faults of the HISD school board. Don’t allow them to punish us for the misdeeds committed against us. There will be business people and corporations who will side with the TEA and tell us a board of managers is the right decision. Understand that these same business people and corporations stand to gain millions of dollars in land grabs and the commodification of Black and Brown bodies. Hold steadfastly to your truth. Your child is not a failure. You are not a failure and neither is your community.

Wheatley High School is not the cause of impending sanctions. Wheatley is the effect of a state that has refused to prioritize our most vulnerable populations in an attempt to capitalize on the strategic moves it has made to privatize education. If we lose our schools, we lose the best chance our children have to break the curses of generational poverty. We lose the chance to see our children live a life that is better than our own. Our children deserve more than survival. Our children deserve to thrive. We do not have to take this. Stand and fight. Do not back down. Our lives truly depend on it.

I am in the constant pursuit of liberation. These are my words, provoked by thought and deed.