Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath confirms takeover of Houston ISD

The state is taking over the Houston Independent School District. The announcement was just made on Wednesday.

FOX 26’s Damali Keith caught up with Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to discuss his decision.

"This is really focused on leadership at the absolute top. Ultimately a school board is responsible for the outcomes of a school district," says Commissioner Morath.

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After years of debates and even battles in court, the state is now taking over Houston ISD.

"This is an action that is required by law, a law that was set up to ensure school boards and school systems were supporting all of their kids, not just some of them," Morath explains. 

The law Commissioner Morath is referring to says the state has two choices, to take over a district or close a campus that fails five years in a row. HISD has had several struggling schools. 

"There’s a campus in Houston whose last acceptable rating was in 2011. I mean that’s two generations of kids," says Commissioner Morath. He adds, "This is a problem, and education is hard and so you will see challenges emerge from time to time, but it should never be true that an individual campus goes half a decade or a decade without some kind of structured support from the district that’s in charge of it." 

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A number of local leaders have rallied recently, speaking out against a state takeover, saying since 2019 HISD has drastically improved and now the district has a B+ accountability rating. So why is the decision being made to take control away from the district?

"This action is ultimately about being truly laser focused on meeting the needs of students. As a dad first and commissioner of education second, I know many parents will wonder about this and this action is not any kind of reflection of the students in Houston ISD. We've got amazing kids in Houston ISD. It is not a reflection of hardworking teachers," explains Commissioner Morath, who recognized HISD Superintendent Millard House for his accomplishments in the district.

Morath also says HISD has some of the best students in the state.

"But there’s also a number of students in Houston ISD who the district has simply not provided adequate support for those students to be successful, and in some cases for extended periods of time," he says.

MORE: Houston ISD students prepare for possible state takeover of school district

The TEA will now replace the school board with a board of managers made up of Houston volunteers, and a new HISD superintendent will be appointed.

"We’ll spend the next few months reviewing, interviewing candidates making sure they are prepared. And on or about June 1, 2023, that is when we will name the Board of Managers and the Superintendent, and at that point and time that group of people will be leading HISD," Morath explains.

If you’re interested in being on the board of managers, the TEA website is accepting applications to seat a diverse group that can come together as a team. 

"We are looking for people with character and integrity and ethics and wisdom, that truly believe that all children can learn and achieve," says Morath. 

Commissioner Morath says he did not take the decision lightly to replace the board that Houstonians elected. 

"Democratically controlled local school districts are part of the fabric of the country and this is important. This is a value that I hold dear, that everyone holds dear, but we also have public schools, this institution is designed to deliver on the American dream," says the commissioner. 

In the last 20 years, there have been seven state takeovers in Texas. Although critics say state takeovers don’t work, Morath says all were successful and lasted from just under two years to nearly six years before reverting back to a local board of trustees.

"There are three exit criteria that I’m looking for. One, we don’t want to see any more multi-year D and F campuses in Houston ISD period," explains Morath. He says there must be systems in place designed to provide a remedy for low performance campuses. Morath says special education in the district will also have to be in full compliance with state and federal guidelines. The third requirement will be for the HISD board to appropriately govern and conduct business, because he says the district is only as good as the group in charge of heading it. 

"Leadership does matter. Anybody that thinks leadership doesn’t matter is living in fantasyland," says Morath.

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The commissioner says just as students and parents don’t necessarily see or feel changes after a new board is elected, he expects that will be the case once the board of managers is in place.

Morath says the only difference will be this group will help achieve academic success at schools that once struggled.

"But these things take time," says Morath.

In a statement on Wednesday, Superintendent Millard House II said:

"I stepped into my role understanding the obstacles we faced as a district including a looming TEA intervention. My team and I remained focused on building a framework that prioritized a high quality educational experience supported by world class talent for all students.

I am proud to say, in the last 19 months, we have already seen vast improvements. Because of the hard work of our students, teachers, and staff, we have lifted 40 of 50 schools off the D or F TEA accountability ratings list. Together, with our parents, community members and leaders, we developed the district's first comprehensive five-year strategic plan to build a better HISD.

Today’s announcement does not discount the gains we have made district-wide. I am confident our educators and staff will continue to do the necessary work to ensure positive student outcomes at every level.  For our students and families, it is education as usual, and the school year continues as normal.  As we wrap up this school year, my focus will be on working with our Board of Trustees and the TEA to ensure a smooth transition without disruption to our core mission of providing an exceptional educational experience for all students."