One of the biggest stories in Houston politics over the past year has been the move by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to take over administrative control of the Houston Independent School District (HISD). The legislative authority for the TEA to take over HISD stemmed from a state law (HB 1842) that was passed by the 2015 Texas Legislature. HB 1842 stipulates that if a local school district has one or more schools that fail to meet educational rating goals set by the TEA for a period of five years or more, the TEA is authorized to step in and take over control of the local school district. An article from the Texas Tribune noted that Wheatley High School met the criteria for the TEA takeover to occur a few years ago, and from there action was taken in accordance with the 2015 law. One of the primary movers in getting HB 1842 passed was Houston area state representative Harold Dutton, who has for years been deeply frustrated by HISD’s seeming inability to improve educational outcomes for students.
It was notable that at the time that HB 1842 was going through the Legislature that there was relatively little resistance to the bill being passed. The historical record of the bill’s passage shows that there were few witnesses who appeared to speak up one way or another about the bill. Also, the bill was passed with strong majorities in both the Texas House and Senate: The Texas House passed the bill by a vote of 125-18, while the Texas Senate passed the measure by a vote of 26-5.
All the same though, when the pedal actually hit the metal, the state takeover of HISD suddenly caused mass hysteria to (predictably) break out. I say predictably because one of the first lessons I ever learned in American politics was that one of the hottest things that are fought over in American political life are government schools. Are you upset about abortion? Social Security? Censorship? The war in Ukraine? Transsexuals? Inflation? Ever mounting federal deficits? How COVID-19 was handled? Vaccines? Government handouts and bailouts to private companies? The huge migration of people across the southern border with Mexico? Well, just try telling a neighborhood community that the local government schools in your area may be shutting down or might be taken over by outsiders and see what kind of reaction you get:
“This is an attack on Democracy!” cried the local head of the American Federation of Teachers at one protest. That claim was made despite the fact that the bill authorizing the takeover of HISD by the TEA was done entirely within the means of the democratic political process.
One week later, a petition was signed by 2,000 people protesting the takeover of HISD by the TEA, and buses full of students and activists went to Austin to protest.
Next came a walkout by students and teachers over the TEA takeover. That is notable considering that one of the holy grails of government schooling and education is that you, Mr. or Miss. Young Student, had better be in that chair and attending school – or else!
The board of HISD voted to end legal action after years and years of going round and round in circles in the courts contesting the takeover, after the Texas Supreme Court sided with the TEA over the squabble.
But the question becomes, what does the state takeover of HISD really mean? Well gentle readers, we already are starting to find out.
On teaching phonics and taking a hacksaw to the HISD payroll
One of the big changes that is going to be made by the TEA takeover is how kids are taught how to read. To the point, a big chunk of schools in HISD are going to be using phonics-based instructional materials to abet the reading skills of kids when school resumes in August. A Wikipedia page on the subject of phonics and phonics-based reading methods can be found here. It seems the idea is to have kids sound out new words and vocabulary that they are introduced to, bit by bit, rather than taking guesses at new words. One really big proponent of phonics-based teaching is John McWhorter. In his book Woke Racism – How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, McWhorter advocates a handful of things that could make a really big practical difference in the life outcomes of Black Americans. One of those is that phonics-based reading instruction should be taught to kids who don’t happen to come from nice, upper-middle or upper class homes whose owners have acquired a substantial collection of books. McWhorter should know about this better than most, considering that he is an academic linguist. McWhorter might be a self described liberal Democrat, but I find myself (as a Liberty-Republican) agreeing with him.
The second eye-popping story that has come out of the TEA takeover – and most likely the real reason that so many people started going bonkers over a state takeover of HISD – is that the new superintendent of HISD, Mike Miles, announced a slashing of the HISD central office workforce by 2,347 employees. HISD central office administration payroll stood at over 10,200 in June 2023, so a slashing of 2,347 in the central office would represent a whopping 23 percent reduction in the labor force! Assuming a cost of roughly $80,000 per employee in pay and in benefits, that would be a cost savings of somewhere around $200 million per year.
For years, people like myself have been wondering, given that HISD’s student population was slowly falling, whether property taxes or spending could be cut? In 2005, HISD’s student population stood at 205,000, but stood at 194,000 after the COVID-19 pandemic event. Well, with the slashing of the HISD central office payroll, an opportunity rises either to cut taxes and spending, or to use some of the slashed payroll money to give school teachers a pay hike. That in turn would likely draw better teachers to working for HISD, which in turn just might help turn out better educated students.
The slashing of employment at the HISD central bureaucracy also brings up the question of how much bureaucracy can be slashed in school districts elsewhere, not to mention what could be done with other government bureaucracies? One person I know from politics (I will not mention said person’s name to protect his identity) who was appointed to be a head of a City of Houston bureaucracy some years ago tried to slash his department by roughly one-third only to be rebuffed by the then-sitting mayor. The HISD bureaucracy slashing shows there is room for this to be done, but it remains to be seen whether others elsewhere will sit up and notice, and if they do, whether theywill be able to overcome inertia to make it a reality.