ABOVE: Patricia Allen, left, a union organizer with Houston Educational Support Personnel, and a colleague hold banners against the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of the Houston Independent School District during a press conference in Houston on March 3, 2023. Credit: Joseph Bui
Protests of the state takeover of Houston ISD escalated on Nov. 15. Members of Community Voices for Public Education (CVPE), an organization advocating for equitable public schools, traveled to Austin to address the State Board of Education. About two dozen people boarded a bus and rode to the state capital Wednesday morning, testifying on issues with the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of HISD. But TEA Commissioner Mike Morath left before hearing any of their concerns.
Morath was in town to update the board about the state’s handling of special education services.
In a meeting led by Chairman Keven Ellis, Mr. Morath opened with thanks.
“Thank you, members. I appreciate, as always, your service to the state of Texas. The State Board service isn’t for the faint of heart, and the reward comes in the afterlife, ‘cause you don’t get paid in this one,’” Morath said. “So, I appreciate the public servants around this table.”
Morath referenced a 2016 federal investigation on Texas’ special education system.
“We have fully resolved our corrective action with the feds,” said Morath, who also shared that TEA has made many improvements to education practices. “Our corrective action in special education was never intended to satisfy the minimum requirements of law; it was intended to help kids.”
Morath announced the launch of TX SPED Support, a training and information resource for special education teachers. He also spoke about enrollment growth. But after roughly an hour, Morath concluded his presentation and left the meeting. He was nowhere to be found when community members began testifying.
Before the first speaker even concluded, Chairman Ellis stated that the board “does not have any authority whatsoever” over HISD.
Educator and CVPE co-founder Ruth Kravetz reminded him: “Most of us will be speaking on special education” — the very topic that Morath had briefed the board on.
“We are here to deliver the people’s report on the takeover,” said Kravetz. “Superintendent Mike Miles is harming our kids, particularly students with disabilities. He has gotten rid of speech therapists, school psychologists, the autism support team, and the homeless department. There are many, many more classrooms than ever before without special ed teachers who are certified, being taught by aides, being taught by assistants, being taught by people who don’t have college degrees.”
Kravetz concluded: “This is real stuff happening in real time, and we ask that you investigate special education and other violations of the law,” she said. “We need your help.”
“Ruth, I do want to again, thank you for being here. I do want you to feel my heart. I’m not here to try and squash the conversation,” Ellis said. “But I do want to point out that there is a grievance procedure […] that allows you to do a three-step, three-level process. If that grievance is not met to the satisfaction of the parent or community member — if there’s a violation of state law, which is what you’re stating here, there is a way to take that up to the TEA. That is your avenue to get to this. We can’t investigate special education at Houston ISD.”
Kravetz told him that the group was submitting complaints through the official channels, but wanted to make sure that the State Board and the TEA Commissioner will investigate any violations.
“Very appropriate for you to have that conversation with him,” Ellis answered. “But again, he’s not us.” (He also wasn’t there.)
Another educator spoke next about the school curriculum.
“I use the term ‘curriculum’ loosely because it’s not a curriculum. It’s a PowerPoint presentation [comprised] of 5 to 10 slides with built-in timers, worksheets, and notecards,” the educator stated. “Teachers are forced to teach at a strict, fast pace, with no regard to low performing or special ed students. Engagement strategies are implemented every four minutes, regardless of whether the students have internalized or processed the information, students are directed to teach the entire class. On some campuses, teachers received directives not to allow children to take restroom breaks. At the end of the PowerPoint presentation, students are given a 10-question quiz. If they pass the quiz, they are sent to the learning center – the library – and provided a packet of worksheets to complete by themselves…or with their peers. The students who are not successful in the quiz stay with the teacher.”
Ellis again repeated that the State Board does not have any authority over this, and it should be taken up with HISD — a point that is frankly moot, given that Houston ISD has been taken over. HISD parent Lauren Simmons spoke next.
“We have children that are being underserved,” said Simmons. “It is extremely unfair that we have an uncertified superintendent in our district, somebody who does not care about education, who does not care about our children. My child is dyslexic. She’s not getting what she needs from school, and she’s not the only one. I understand that you have a job to do; I understand that these concerns may not fall into your purview. But you have to understand that this is what we felt like we had to do to get an audience with Mike Morath, who isn’t even here.”
Simmons added, “I know what you’re going to say. I know what you’re going to tell me. But I need you, human to human, person to person, to understand the stakes are that high – and they are extremely dire. We are at the risk of losing a generation of children.”
A noticeably softened Ellis responded, “I do want you to understand. Don’t take what I’m doing here as that we don’t care. I can tell you: every single one of these 15 members around this room care very deeply for these students and specifically the students of HISD—”
“Show up for us, then,” Simmons retorted.
Ellis meandered through a response, implying the board’s hands were tied.
“We do represent you, but we are able to represent you in the capacity of a constituent, not as any action we can take,” said Ellis. “While the board cares about the students, there’s a proper way to be able to get things done. The legislature has authority; the commissioner has authority; we don’t have authority.”
A state board member asked Simmons what she would ask Morath, had he bothered to stay.
“What is student-centered about this decision that he made?” the state board member asked. “We found out over the summer, months before school started that this takeover was happening. My son in high school lost his principal a month before school started. You can’t tell me you care about kids when you’re making those kinds of drastic changes right before the instructional year begins.”
Another member asked Kravetz and Simmons about data on teacher turnover since the takeover.
“Using the Houston Chronicle and Houston Landing’s investigation,” Kravetz said, “the number of teachers who have left the district in the first six weeks is two and a half times what’s normal.” (Indeed, both outlets have reported elevated turnover, with the latter stating 170 teachers left the district in the first six weeks of this school year, versus an average of 84 during the same time span from 2019-2022.)
Asked for follow-up info about the class curriculum, Kravetz confirmed much of what had been said.
“They give a 20-minute PowerPoint. The kids have 10 minutes to internalize the information; then they have a 10-minute test at the end of every single day, with no accommodations for students with disabilities and nothing being translated into Spanish,” said Kravetz. “And the students who do well go to the library and they do another worksheet for the remaining 45 minutes. And students who do poorly stay behind.”
Ellis responded by again bringing up jurisdiction. Over and over, Ellis pointed out that the State board of education doesn’t have jurisdiction over concerns and problems related to the takeover of HISD, citing the administrative code.
“Can we get an opinion from the legal team about the administrative code? ‘Cause I think the reason that the people from HISD are here is that they’re under a takeover by the Texas Education Agency,” asked one board member. “We’re standing in the Texas Education Agency room. So, if they can’t go to their local HISD meetings because the superintendent has planned ‘demo days’ during the same time that they have their local board meetings, why would this not be the correct forum?”
She asked legal counsel to weigh in.
“I understand this situation, but the question is whether you have jurisdiction, which doesn’t change based on with the commissioner does,” the legal counsel shared.
“I thought the public could testify on the commissioner’s comments,” the board member questioned in response. “How was this not the right forum?
“I don’t know what the best forum for these would be, but I can’t see it being here, ‘cause that’s not your job,” the lawyer answered.
The dialogue continued after teacher Sarah Rivlin came to the podium. Ellis interrupted her testimony again to say her concerns must be directed at others. Then another board member pushed back. What should’ve been a direct testimonial instead turned into a debate over whether the State board had the authority to help those testifying — or even had the jurisdiction to hear their testimony at all. By the time Ellis finally called on Rivlin, she had burst into tears.
“I just need to know what I’m allowed to say,” Rivlin wept. “I don’t know what I’m allowed to say. I’m going to lose my job for being here. Can you just listen to what I have to say?”
As community members surrounded and comforted Revlin, she composed herself stating, “Hi. I’m a Houston HISD teacher. Our superintendent’s decisions have decimated our special education system. This year he fired half of the curriculum department and as a result the curriculum this year has been so bad that the district has had to tell us not to use it. I’m an ESL teacher and the district didn’t even bother to make an ESL curriculum this year.”
“I’m expected to teach students who entered the country three months ago the same ELA material that fluent English speakers are learning. I’ve never experienced working conditions like this,” Revlin continued. “Every week, there’s a new bizarre decree from the district. Desks must be arranged in pairs. Coloring is not allowed in school. We may not use the word ‘game’ in a lesson plan. Lesson plans must not be written on recycled paper. Classroom lights must be on, including during Pre-K nap time. In some schools, disciplinary infractions must not be reported so the numbers look better and — the most heartbreaking to me — students may not silently read books in class. If they catch me following Texas law by having my kids read books, I could lose my job, just like teachers could lose their jobs for providing legally required special education accommodations to students. We are being forced to ignore state and federal law and our own consciences, and our students are the ones who lose.”