ABOVE: Rep. Harold V. Dutton, Jr. (D-Houston)
In just a few days, the ritual of back-to-school will be in full bloom.
The malls will be elbow-to-elbow with parents and students buying clothes and school supplies for the start of the school year. But what difference does it make if your child looks great, has all the supplies, while the school that your child attends is not so great or is just plain bad?
This is what the current debate concerning Houston Independent School District (HISD) schools should be about. But it’s not.
To everyone’s dismay, public commentary about HISD schools that are deemed “improvement required” have been filled with misinformation and even disinformation. That is tragic because improving student outcomes in HISD has taken a back seat to all kinds of finger pointing, name calling and other non-productive behavior.
Let me set the record straight.
The House Public Education Committee, where I have served for over 28 years, has jurisdiction for all of the public education issues affecting Texas’ 5.3 million students and the approximately 350,000 public school teachers. As Texas’ longest serving member of this Committee, my perspective is different than many. And this is not to suggest in any way that my service renders me the public education “know-it all”. That is far from the case.
What I do know, however, is that Texas’ many efforts to improve public education have been focused primarily on raising the “ceiling” — for example, whether Algebra II should be required to graduate high school. The reality is that Algebra II is out of the question for too many HISD students who struggle with general math. And too many of the public schools that are attended by these same students consistently rank at the bottom of the education ladder, which brings me to the HISD debate on its schools labeled “improvement required”.
During the 2015 Texas legislative session, Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock (R-Killeen) was the Chair of the House Public Education Committee. He and I had many, many conversations about how to get school districts to give appropriate attention to lower performing schools, particularly those that remain low performing every school year. I pointed out that we currently hold students accountable and we currently hold teachers accountable, but the school boards that don’t address these bad schools, never suffer any consequence.
Using HISD as an example, I explained to Rep. Aycock that the entire HISD school board does not have any skin in the game for the problem posed by consistently low performing campuses — especially campuses outside their respective Board area. I also showed Rep. Aycock a map of Houston and highlighted that almost every low performing HISD campus was east of Main Street. And even more abhorrent– I pointed out that students at each of these low performing campuses were either, all-Black, all-Hispanic, or a mixture of Black and Brown.
To help Rep. Aycock understand further, I explained the history of Kashmere – not the great days of its past – but its recent history of being low performing for five (5) successive school years. I further explained that Kashmere’s academic rating remains unacceptable because its students always did poorly on the math portion of the standardized test. I shared that my research uncovered that the students at Kashmere never had the benefit of a certified math teacher in the classroom. And this was not just for one or two years, it was never. Rep. Aycock was astounded. More especially, he asked how do we fix this?
And thus, HB-1842 was born, which requires school districts to submit a turnaround plan to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) when a campus is unacceptable for two successive school years. The turnaround plan for the campus has to include details on the method of restructuring, reforming or reconstituting the campus. TEA could approve the plan only after determining that it would satisfy all student performance standards at the campus, not later than two years after the plan’s implementation. However, if a turnaround plan is not approved, TEA must either (1) appoint a board of managers to govern the entire district; (2) order alternative management of the campus; or (3) close the campus. However, if a campus is unacceptable for three consecutive years after submitting the turnaround plan, TEA is limited to either appoint a board of managers for the entire district or close the school.
I have always opposed closing any campus simply because it is rated low performing. To do so presumes that the building had something to do with the campus’ rating. I added language to HB-1842 which eliminated the option to close a campus if the parents objected to closure. This language limited TEA to the sole option of appointing a board of managers to take over the entire district.
This is where HISD finds itself, not just because of Kashmere, but about 13 other schools – again all located east of Main Street in Houston. Either HISD will provide the resources to permanently eliminate low performing schools or TEA will take over the district. But–NO SCHOOLS WILL BE CLOSED.
AGAIN, NO SCHOOLS WILL BE CLOSED!
Quite frankly, we have already lost an entire generation because of consistently failing schools in HISD. How do I know they will get better under HB-1842. The truth is I don’t. But what I do know is these campuses in Houston’s northeast community face an even bleaker future if HISD continues its current practice of ignoring these schools. Sure we can wait on HISD to fix them but I am convinced that without a gun to their head, it won’t happen.
My confidence in HISD improving these low performing schools was further shattered when I heard several officials attest that poverty explained the lack of success of students in HISD’s low performing schools. That is quite preposterous and does nothing more than blame the victim(s). This attitude may also be instructive as to why there has been limited success in programs targeting schools and students most in need of help.
HISD promotes its school selection system by students as one of school choice. For students in Northeast Houston, that is an unrealistic choice because their alternatives are a bad school around the corner or a great school across town.
Improving low performing schools creates a real choice. And for me, it’s the only choice — and that is what HB-1842 seeks to do.
Rep. Dutton (D-Houston) is serving his 17th term in the Texas House of Representatives. His Legislative District is essentially in Northeast Houston and includes the communities of Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens, Settegast, Pleasantville, Trinity Gardens, Liberty Gardens and extends eastward to Barrett.