A Suspicious HFT Says Politics, Not Concern For Students, is Behind TEA Takeover of HISD

Zeph Capo and the Houston Federation of Teachers are suspicious of the TEA takeover of HISD.
Zeph Capo and the Houston Federation of Teachers are suspicious of the TEA takeover of HISD. Photo by Margaret Downing
Suggesting that politics, not concern for students, is behind the Texas Education Agency decision to take over the Houston ISD school board, Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo Monday charged the state agency with a continued attempt to privatize education in the state — supporting charters not public schools.

"We have doubts whether this is really about student achievement or is this about easy pickings," Capo said at a news conference he called at union headquarters. While saying he did not want parents to panic, he complained that TEA has not said what it is going to do yet, what its goals are. "What we see is privatization instead of education being the driver of this decision."

Last week, citing numerous bad actions and dysfunction by elected HISD school board members as well as the continued failure to meet state standards at historic Wheatley High School, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath announced he was following his TEA investigators' advice and replacing the elected board with an appointed one of his own choosing.

Sitting in on Monday's HFT press conference by Skype was Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, of which HFT is an affiliate. She said the idea that TEA had to step in because of actions by the HISD trustees is nonsense since in last week's school board elections two incumbents were voted out and four seats in all will be filled with new people. The community was able to take care of matters itself, she said. It did not need its elected board replaced with an appointed board from the state.

"This is a power grab," the longtime national teachers union leader said. "It has nothing to do with student achievement. And it is actually going to hurt the community in Houston."

How can it be that just four years ago, the TEA turned over the entire North Forest ISD to HISD to turn around and now says that HISD isn't competent to manage itself, Capo asked. Overall, the district has an accountability rating of 88 percent, which is above average, he said. "How are they going to invest in this one school to help our students thrive?"

"This is not a failing district. We're talking about one school," he said referring to Wheatley High School. The idea that an entire district with thousands of children and almost 300 schools could be taken over by TEA because of problems at just one school is ridiculous, he said.

He referred frequently to a chart showing 38 charter schools in Texas showing overall scores below that of Wheatley's 59 and asked why they weren't closed. What he left out of the discussion, however, was the fact that Wheatley was listed as Improvement Required (the former measure) or rated "F" (in the new A-F system) for seven straight years.

Still he insisted that TEA gives charters an unfair advantage and does not require it to meet the same standards it demands of the state's public schools.

"We are not treated the same. Every advantage is given to the charter industry," Capo said. "Every opportunity  to knock public schools is put in place particularly by the administration we have in Austin."

The AFT has filed a Freedom of Information act request with the TEA for copies of all communication between TEA Commissioner Mike Morath and Deputy Commissioner A.J. Crabill and several charter operators and pro-charter organizations. The request also singles out TEA communications with HISD trustee Jolanda Jones. When asked why, Capo said it was because she stated publicly that she would welcome a TEA takeover of HISD.

Both Capo and Weingarten repeatedly warned that a school district takeover is "not a silver bullet" and that communities in Detroit, Philadelphia and New Orleans had all come to regret and then rescind that action. 

Addressing the latest Legislative Budget Board reported released at the end of last week which alleged massive financial mismanagement in the district by its administration and also cited dysfunction in the school board as one of the causes of HISD's problems, Capo said: "If the issue is the administration that we're seeing in the Legislative Budget Board report, well TEA under the conservator has had the opportunity for the last several years to deal with the administration and have done nothing. So why would we not have doubts? They had the power to make changes at Wheatley High School." Instead of any interim steps, he said, TEA opted to take the more extreme step of a takeover.
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing