Inside of Wheatley High School
Wheatley High School now meets state standards. Photo by Houston Public Media.

The Supreme Court of Texas could soon issue a final decision in Texas Education Agency v. Houston Independent School District. Officials will consider changes to the system that places sanctions on districts with low-performing schools. TEA argues the changes in the law make their position stronger, and that the agency should be allowed to install a board of governors in place of the democratically elected school board.

“The bottom line is that if a school system fails, the state needs to move in and change out the leadership,” said Republican State Senator Paul Bettencourt, who authored the bill that made that possible in 2021. “Because we can’t afford to lose a generation of kids in a bad education system because they’ve got bad leadership from trustees in specific areas of the state.”

The state supreme court initially heard oral arguments in October. A decision is expected between December and June, according to a spokesperson for the court. Lawyers representing the Texas Education Agency and Houston Independent School District presented arguments to the state’s highest court last week, continuing a years-long case that could change who controls the largest school district in Texas.

TEA commissioner Mike Morath attempted to replace the locally elected school board with a group of state-appointed managers in 2019, citing low academic performance at one school — in a district with, at the time, 280 campuses — and illegal, unethical behavior by the HISD school board as key ingredients for the takeover. TEA also tried to stop the school board from hiring a new superintendent.

“HISD students are still in need of interventions,” state assistant solicitor general Kyle Highful, representing TEA, argued.

HISD sued to stop the takeover, arguing the agency’s approach skirted due process and fell outside its legal powers under state law. The district also claimed the outcome of TEA’s investigation into the district was predetermined.

“Across Texas, school board members are — as this court knows — the fundamental way that people interact with democracy,” David Jay Campbell of O’Hanlon, Demerath & Castillo told justices on behalf of HISD. “That is why the legislature has said that these elected officials, these members of the community should govern and oversee school districts.”

The takeover has been on hold as the case moves through court, and HISD now has a new superintendent — and a mostly new board of trustees.

TEA has also pointed to a chaotic 2018 HISD board meeting where, in a surprise move, trustees voted to replace the superintendent. Quoting the words of several trustees, the agency argued the board was dysfunctional and failed to serve students.

“The current board is a different board than the one that began in the lawsuit,” said HISD board president Judith Cruz, who won election to the board the day before TEA commissioner Mike Morath announced the takeover plans.

 “The board will continue to do the work we were elected to do. We are focused on student outcomes and whatever the result of the case is, that is what the focus should always be,” Cruz said.

For years before the attempted takeover, students at HISD’s Wheatley High School did not perform at levels deemed acceptable by TEA. In the time the takeover has been stalled, Wheatley received a passing grade. At the district level, HISD received a B from TEA for the 2021-22 school year. In court, TEA has pointed to another HISD school, Kashmere High School, which did not receive a passing grade last year.

Asked by Justice Jane Bland if Wheatley High School’s improved performance has any bearing on the case, assistant solicitor general Highful argued it “doesn’t have any legal relevance.” He added that the district’s solid overall rating is also irrelevant.

“The commissioner’s view is that, ‘Yes, HISD is a large school district, and what that means is you have some very wealthy, very high-performing schools up here that are doing great, but you also have schools like Wheatley and Kashmere that struggle year after year,’” Highful said. “And if you’re a student at one of these low-performing schools, it doesn’t help you to know that elsewhere in the district there’s a school that’s doing great. And the commissioner believes that every student should have access to a quality education.”