Facing hecklers in the audience and criticism from other Harris County elected officials attending the Texas Tribune Festival, Houston ISD Superintendent Mike Miles on Saturday continued to champion his overhaul of the state’s largest public school district, saying his critics are stuck in an outdated mindset that is holding schools back from success.

“It is hard to do the things we are trying to do if you have a community or a board or other status-quo bias in the system,” Miles said. 

Miles’ comments came on the third day of the political festival in Austin, where he sat down with Houston Landing editor Jacob Carpenter for an hour-long discussion about the policies he has implemented since being appointed by the state in June as part of the Texas Education Agency’s takeover of the school district.

In addition to Miles, the TEA appointed a new board of trustees, effectively ousting the elected board. 

Miles discussed the implementation of his “New Education System” at 28 HISD campuses that are receiving a major overhaul, the roadmap for broader district reform and what his efforts mean for education throughout the state of Texas. 

The overhaul of the district has been drastic and immediate since he came to Houston in June, and Miles said he also expects to begin seeing results quickly. 

“If we don’t start to see the needle move in two years, you should fire me,” Miles said. 

READ MORE: The Houston Landing’s full interview with Mike Miles at TribFest

There are 28 NES schools that were created for this school year. An additional 57 requested to be part of the overhaul and are labeled “New Education System-Aligned” campuses.

The NES system involves moving misbehaving kids to so-called “team centers” in school libraries and eliminating the librarian position — two moves that have infuriated many HISD parents and politicians. Teachers at the schools received pay raises, and NES elementary and middle school classrooms now have teacher apprentices to help teachers.

Miles also fielded a series of questions from festival attendees — many of whom said they were educators, Houstonians, or both — who disagree with the overhaul. Questions and criticism were shouted from the back of the venue, and Miles, flanked by festival security, was followed by several of his detractors seeking further discussion after the event. 

“(Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath) selected me to turn around HISD because he knows what my skill set is, and he knows how thick my skin is,” Miles said. “This is not for the faint of heart, as you’d imagine.” 

Miles was a frequent target for other officials from Harris County also attending the festival. 

“I never thought the state would swoop in and just take over the largest school district in the state of Texas,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said during an interview Friday. “I never thought they would impose a superintendent who would close 28 libraries in schools that primarily cater to Black and brown students and turn them into detention centers in 2023, and everyone is supposed to be OK with that. Are you kidding me?”

Turner said the takeover of HISD was motivated by politics and a desire to punish Houston for being a stronghold of Democratic voters in a Republican-controlled state. Turner called Republicans’ policies toward Harris County and Houston, including the HISD takeover, “evil.”

“Grace to people who really don’t understand education or aren’t educators,” Miles said when asked about Turner’s comments. “Grace to people who have not been in our schools.”

Following public criticism from Turner, Miles invited the mayor to tour several New Education System HISD campuses during the first week of school. Turner declined the invitation, calling it a gimmick.

Saturday morning, Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Lesley Briones joined a panel of four other county commissioners and judges to discuss the state’s incursion on local policies, where she expressed a desire to build bridges with Republicans in Austin to better serve Harris County residents. Following the panel, however, Briones said the takeover of HISD is one of several “disappointing” actions the state has taken targeting Harris County, including a bill signed into law this year abolishing the county’s Elections Administrator post and a pre-emption law that blocks cities and counties from creating regulations on a wide variety of issues.

“Were there a few schools that needed additional attention? Absolutely,” Briones said. “We don’t have to take over the entire district and change libraries to detention centers.”

Teacher unions also have been quick to criticize the HISD takeover and Miles’ rapid overhaul of dozens of schools since June. 

Saturday’s one-on-one came after Miles told district administrators on Wednesday that educators have the choice to leave their jobs if they aren’t on board with his vision. Miles on Saturday stopped short of calling on teachers that disagree with him to resign but said HISD requires a “high-performance culture” to bring success to the schools. 

“It’s a choice,” Miles said. “If they don’t want to work in that kind of culture, they need to make the decision that’s right for them.”

Under state law, teachers who resign after mid-July can be barred from teaching in a Texas public school district for a year, though they can teach at charter schools. Asked if educators who disagree with his vision should resign this school year, Miles said it will take several years to slowly change the district’s culture. 

Despite the concerns from public officials and educators, Miles says he already is seeing some success in schools operating under the New Education System model. 

Discipline problems have dropped this year at NES schools because the learning model is more engaging for students, he said. Further data on discipline rates in NES schools will be presented at an upcoming school board meeting, he added. 

Miles repeatedly touted his work as superintendent at Dallas ISD, saying it shows his model can be successful in Houston. As superintendent from 2012 to 2015 in Dallas, Miles swiftly implemented pay-for-performance and school turnaround systems before resigning in 2015 and launching a charter school network, Third Future Schools. 

Some of those policies, including teacher incentives, later were adopted by the TEA as statewide policy. Asked if his overhaul of HISD is a testing ground for broader statewide policy, Miles said he is focused only on improving Houston schools. 

Despite the public vitriol over his work, Miles said he is supported by many public officials, including some who criticize him publicly.

“There’s a wide range of views and there’s a lot of support, from both sides of the aisle,” Miles said. “People say out loud what they need to say out loud. What they say behind closed doors is another thing.”

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Houston Landing. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...