Here in Houston, Texas, a nine-year-old public school student named Carlos is suffering a trauma no child should have to endure. According to his mother, he used to love school so passionately that, last year, he begged to go to school on the weekends too. But now, just a month into the new school year, he wakes up every morning with an anxiety-induced stomach ache, cries at night and begs to stay home.
Sadly, Carlos isn’t alone.
He is just one of 190,000 students across 274 campuses across Houston who now unwillingly find themselves on the front lines of a hostile takeover of our state’s largest public school system. A takeover designed to put politics over the needs of students, and one we know is already failing students by prioritizing test scores and bizarre lesson plans over the needs of children and the will of our community.
But how did we get here? How could the Houston Independent School District – a B+ rated system whose record was actually improving – become a victim of a state takeover?
In 2015, Texas passed a law allowing the state to take over an entire school district if even just one campus held an “F” accountability rating five years in a row. By 2019, voters took action on their own – electing a new school board that worked with students and teachers to bring Wheatley High School – our only failing school – from an “F” to a “C” by 2022.
But that wasn’t enough for state officials. In 2023, they still triggered an undemocratic act that would make any authoritarian dictator blush. On June 1, 2023, Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s appointed Education Commissioner replaced our duly elected school board trustees with a hand-picked slate of political appointees; unelected appointees with ties to private school and charter industries and accountable to no one. The state even replaced one of our elected trustees with the candidate who lost – an outrageous move that should shock anyone who values the basic principles of democracy.
Making matters worse, state officials appointed F. Mike Miles to serve as our new Superintendent, a calculated choice given his turbulent and failed tenure as Superintendent of Dallas ISD. Miles, who is better at lying to the public than Pinnochio ever was – has wasted no time creating chaos.
His first major act in Houston was to fire scores of librarians and close libraries, turning them into Zoom Discipline Centers in Black and Brown communities. Some schools started the year with an entirely new staff as Miles forced all teachers at 28 targeted schools to reapply for their jobs. In a shocking disregard for quality instruction, he has staffed HISD schools with uncertified people who don’t even hold college degrees. He recklessly terminated contracts with school psychologists and speech therapists, the autism support team, the homeless department, the records department, and the fine arts departments to name a few.
Yet, he is spending money like a drunken sailor on frivolous expenditures like spin bikes and cameras in every classroom and has given huge raises to already highly paid Central Office administrators. Under his tenure, the budget deficit continues to skyrocket, and he has publicly stated he will close schools and get rid of “excess” teachers. In a jab at taxpayers, he raised the $100k threshold for required board approval on contracts to $1 million.
Since August, Miles has removed principals at the drop of a hat; teachers are quitting or being terminated in numbers never seen before; the unelected school board continues to unanimously approve his every whim, adding another $100 M to the budget deficit just last month. Miles’ every move seems hellbent on destroying Houston ISD.
Miles is forcing educators to use lock-step, error-ridden and developmentally inappropriate lessons. His Orwellian one-size-fits-all curriculum and hubris defies incredulity and is harming our children. A kindergarten teacher says that she cannot teach the alphabet until February and must only teach math lessons in the fall. Before school started, Miles forced teachers to remove colorful decorations and student work, labeling it “clutter,” leaving rooms barren and joyless. Miles requires teachers to perform a robotic “check for understanding” every four minutes or be reprimanded.
Every day children in 87 HISD schools (as well as many non NES schools) must take a timed test over material they haven’t had time to learn. Teachers are not allowed to provide small group instruction and cannot provide children with disabilities their accommodations that are required by law. The top-heavy HISD leadership team punishes teachers who try to build curiosity and wonder into their lessons.
F. Mike Miles is treating award-winning teachers like disposable widgets. Dozens of teachers have already been removed from the classroom or terminated for daring to ask basic questions. At one school, an entire faculty was told to implement the Miles plan with fidelity or be re-assigned. After two teachers respectfully raised their concerns, they were fired. Miles appears to be taking a page out of Pinochet’s playbook, reassigning or firing teacher leaders who dare to speak up at board meetings about matters of public concern. Miles has created a byzantine principal evaluation system based on mistrust of teachers and that incentivizes principals to rate teachers based on standardized test scores.
Miles is taking Houston ISD down the road to perdition and our children are the losers.
But it is not all bad news. We are not powerless against this takeover. From day one, we have organized a coalition of parents, teachers, students, and community to resist this unAmerican occupation. Community Voices for Public Education has collected over 7,600 signatures opposing the takeover, organized protests, written op-eds and gotten national media coverage about this hostile state takeover. Working with the teachers union and other groups, hundreds of parents turned out at an August board to read to their kids in protest after the Board of Managers eliminated libraries and librarians. We also speak at board meetings, conduct research, demand accountability and even go door-to-door to inform our neighbors about the need to protect public schools.
What’s next? The only way we will stop this attack on our children is mass action; wildcat strikes for teachers and boycotting STAAR for parents. We must also change the laws that govern our state and end the unrelenting focus on high stakes testing and privatization. In the meantime, we must bear witness by protesting in front of our children’s school(s) and by volunteering in schools most harmed by Miles’ mayhem until we get schools back. Teachers must collectively ignore Miles’ and the state’s immoral mandates and create magical spaces of meaningful learning in spite of them.
It is unconscionable to do anything less.
Ruth Kravetz is a longtime educator, parent, and advocate. She co-founded Community Voices for Public Education, a multi-racial, community-based not-for-profit that unites parents, educators, students, and community members to advocate for strong and equitable public schools. She spent three decades as a Houston ISD math/chemistry teacher and school administrator including several years teaching in The Gambia, Bolivia, and Panama. She was a local/regional teacher of the year, taught pre-service teachers at the University of Houston and is a proud union member.