State Rep. Harold Dutton

The failure of HISD to submit a plan by April 30 to address 10 predominantly minority schools rated as “improvement required” (IR) for the last five years has activated an amendment to House Bill 1842 and placed the district in limbo.

As a result, HISD has two options – allow the Texas Education Agency (TEA) to take over the district or close the 10 schools in Black and Hispanic neighborhoods. The fate of thousands of students is now in the hands of Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath and other officials.

The IR-rated schools are Blackshear, Dogan, Highland Heights, Mading and Wesley Elementary Schools, Henry Middle School, Woodson PK-8, and Kashmere, Wheatley and Worthing High Schools.

The co-author of the House Bill (HB) 1842, Houston State Rep. Harold Dutton (D-District 142), is weighing in on why his amendment makes good sense for HISD and will improve the schools.

HB 1842 passed the State Legislature in 2015 and was designed to force districts to improve low-performing schools or face tough consequences. Dutton said prior to its passage, districts were never pressured to do anything about failing schools.

“This says to the school district, ‘Either you do it, or we’ll get someone who can,’ ” he said.

Dutton, a Fifth Ward native and Wheatley graduate, has served on the Public Education Committee longer than any legislator in Texas history. He started his journey to fix Houston schools more than a decade ago.

Over the years, Dutton sponsored some education bills that didn’t pass. One proposed bill would have divided HISD into four sub-parts and each part would elect its own superintendent. Another bill would have created an opportunity school district comprised of all the low-performing schools (IR status) for the last three years across Texas.

Though those bills didn’t pass, Dutton still felt victorious because he drew attention to the plight of Black and Hispanic schools across the state. He recalled how a conversation he had with the then HISD superintendent eventually led to HB 1842.

Dutton wanted to know why Kashmere, which he describes as “historically known for its greatness but in the ‘90s started to decline,” became worse. Dutton asked the superintendent why Kashmere was failing and he said it was because Kashmere did not do well on the math portion of a standardized test.

When Dutton asked why Kashmere did not perform well, the superintendent said he did not know.

“Well I do [know] because those children at Kashmere have never had a certified math teacher,” Dutton said. “HISD has certified math teachers but why is it that they don’t have any at Kashmere? They have them all in the schools on the west side of Houston.  Yet I looked around the schools on the northeast side of Houston and most of them did not have certified math teachers. So I thought, why is that?”

Dutton asked an HISD board member who represented the west side that question, and he said it wasn’t his problem because he represented another section of town.

“I told him that he may have gotten elected on the west side, ‘but you don’t just represent the kids on the west side, you represent all of HISD and all of the students.’ ”

Dutton, who has represented the north side for 33 years, talked to his colleague State Rep. Jimmie Don Aycock, chair of the House Public Education Committee, about his concerns. Aycock asked Dutton, “How would you fix the problem?”

As a result, Dutton attached an amendment to HB 1842 that said drastic measures could be taken if a school remains IR for five consecutive years: TEA could come in and take over the school district and appoint a board of managers; alternative management could be created to operate the school; or a school could be closed with the provision of a parent trigger, where permission of the majority parents is required before closing any school.

There are almost 7,000 students in the 10 IR-rated HISD schools, but Dutton said in reality, closer to 35,000 students have been impacted because of low-performance over a five-year period.

“Some of my colleagues say the sanctions are too heavy,” Dutton said. “But my sense is, if you killed the future of some 35,000 kids, I think you should suffer [some form of] punishment.  You ought to be removed and someone else should take your place educating children.

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“All of the schools that find themselves in this predicament are Black and Brown schools on the east side of Main Street,” Dutton added. “That means to me that geography defines whether or not you are going to get a good education and that should never happen.

“In fact, it didn’t happen until somehow we got into this situation where people are looking at certain schools like Wheatley and Kashmere as being low performing and they are blaming the students. That’s the part that strikes me as strange,” she said. “People suggest that these are poor schools or in poor neighborhoods. Well what does that have to do with it? That has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Dutton admitted that the plight of these schools has been a long time coming and he should have done something earlier.

“The truth of the matter is that almost 45 percent of the students in northeast Houston get on a bus every morning to go to a school across town to get an education. They pass by schools in the neighborhood. HISD says ‘they are a district of choice.’  Well, I don’t think there is much choice in having a bad school around the corner and a good school across town.

“Choice only happens among equals.  I believe if you have a great school across town you should have a great school around the corner.  HISD is more in the transportation business when it comes to the northeast side instead of the education business and that’s what is bothering me,” he said.

Dutton said that without HB 1842, there would not be a discussion about the issue.

“Things would have gone on and gotten worse and at some point, people would say all we can do is close [the schools].  I think it is time out for us robbing the future of all of the children in northeast Houston. I could not take it anymore and that’s why House Bill 1842 came into being.”

When asked what should happen next, Dutton said, “I think the commissioner of education should appoint a board of managers and those people should be given the task of making sure that every campus has the right kind of programs to educate our children.”