The state taking over Houston’s public schools is a major issue this year in the school board election.
FRANCOIS PICARD via Getty Images

Like many contests that preceded it around the country, an upcoming school board race in Houston, Texas, will test how voters feel about “critical race theory” and mask mandates, along with another polarizing issue — local versus state control of schools.

A runoff election Saturday will determine control of the Houston Independent School District, the nation’s seventh-largestPublic school agency that has stood up against a takeover by the state. This would have a negative impact on 200,000 students in more than 280 schools.

Incumbents on Houston’s all-Democrat board of trustees are beating back a challenge from a GOP slate that came within striking distance of winning seats in November — although none of its candidates received more than 50% of the vote, thus triggering the second election for four contested seats.

The race isn’t unlike other nationalized school board elections, except that in Houston, the Texas Education Association’s takeover is a major flashpoint.

The takeover was not popular in the area, as both parties admit. Both parties acknowledge that the takeover is not popular in the district. DemocratsConsider that, in spite of the favorable position for parental rights on the right, RepublicansIf incumbent Democrats win the trustee elections, it would be fine to have a state takeover.

“It’s hugely ironic,” said Ruth Kravetz, an activist and former educator in Houston. “Republicans have traditionally said local control is the most important thing. Now they’re saying local control is not the most important thing when it comes to running our public schools.”

2019 Governor Greg Abbott — a Republican who was sued, and lost, over his executive order banning masks in Texas schools — advocated replacing the trustees overseeing the state’s largest district, which has faced an ethics breach and years of poor performance at one troubled high school.

“What a joke. HISD leadership has been a failure. They have failed to teach the children they were supposed to educate by their self-centered incompetence. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change,” Abbott tweeted then.

While a temporary injunction stopped TEA’s takeover as a challenge makes it way through Texas Supreme Court, there are questions about whether Abbott might try to walk back the state’s takeover attempt should the GOP win seats on the board. His office didn’t immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.

Janette Garza Linner was a Republican nominee for the office of trustees. The News-Leader that electing new members might prompt the state to “back off” of its conservatorship.

The GOP slate contends that while it would prefer local control, what they’re most hoping for is a clean slate after several turbulent years.

Five Houston trustees met privately in 2018 to try unsuccessfully to hire a new superintendent. TEA later ruledThis was against open meeting laws. The trustees were two of three who are up for reelection.

“I’m not in favor of school takeover,” said Republican Caroline Walter, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother who’s competing in the runoff. “However, do we want a board of trustees who have broken the law and feel that they are above the law? Because that’s not good for our district, either.”

“I am a believer in having a local school board run by local community members,” she continued. “But I also don’t think they should be able to get away with what they’re getting away with. So it’s kind of a no-win situation right now.”

HuffPost attempted to contact all eight candidates in the runoff and heard back from four open to interviews — three Republicans and one Democrat.

“It depends,” Garza Lindner, a management consultant, told HuffPost in an email when asked about whether she supports school takeover. Garza Lindner stated that Democrats unfairly try to portray the GOP slate pro-takeover.

“My opponent has made this a key issue by claiming I want the state to takeover. Why would I, a newcomer to politics, go through a grueling monthslong campaign for public office, just to welcome the loss of local control?” she said.

The ethics episode and failing metrics at several schools — including Phillis Wheatley High School, which serves the city’s historically Black Fifth Ward — are what spurred the state’s intervention, even though the district as a whole is meeting state benchmarks. Texas legislatures 2015 passed a lawSome Democrats saw this as an opportunity for Republicans to take control of Democratic-controlled cities by allowing the state’s intervention in failing schools.

“They wrote the rules to make sure Houston ISD schools would fail,” said Anne Sung, a 42-year-old Democratic incumbent who finished behind her newcomer opponent in the November election. “And that’s the basis for the takeover.”

Education activists fear the consequences of allowing the state to establish its conservatorship. It involves TEA appointing a team of managers. These advocates claim that the over 100 cases of government takeovers in the country were motivated by racism and political powerMore than just a wish to improve public education. Kravetz is an activist who fears that charter schools will take over the district.

“I think this is using children as pawns, making money on the backs of kids,” said Kravetz, who’s volunteering with Sung’s campaign. “If the state takes over, they will almost immediately turn over public schools to charters. And the problem with that is if you don’t know how to work the system, your kids lose.”

The Houston board of trustees race has the same rhetoric as many of the other once sleepy boards of education. Republican Kendall Baker, a former city employee, said his opponent is a “far left-wing liberal” who is for Marxism and critical race theory — which has become a catchall for any teachings about racism and history that Republicans find offensive.

“People here want a change,” said Baker, 56. “Because of CRT and the mask mandate issue, that has opened up the window and shed light on the whole state of HISD.”

Udus Evabagharu (chair of Harris County) was asked if the district could benefit from bipartisan leadership. Democratic Party, said state funding and legislation impacting schools has been under GOP control for two decades and said the outcome hasn’t demonstrated that Republicans can lead on education.

“If you’re looking at the state of Texas, that’s the Republicans’ fault,” he said. “The Republicans have controlled the governor’s mansion, the lieutenant governor’s seat and the state legislature. They’re the ones who have been in charge of education. You can’t say that schools are failing when you refuse to adequately fund them.”


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