This is the full transcript of the Houston Landing’s interview with Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath, who spoke about his decision to oust the elected board members of the Houston Independent School District.
Q: Commissioner, what will be taking place this week with regard to Houston ISD?
A: What we announced today was that to best support the students, teachers, parents and school community of Houston ISD, I will be appointing a board of managers as an intervention action required by law. So this is a board that will be made up of Houstonians. We want to make sure that everyone on that board has a firm belief that all children can learn and achieve at high levels when properly supported, and that they can work together as a team.
I’m a dad first, I’m commissioner of education second. So, just as a parent, I want families to know that this decision’s not a reflection of the incredible students of Houston ISD, nor the hardworking teachers and staff of Houston ISD. Many, many students in Houston are really flourishing. There’s also, unfortunately, a large number of students in Houston who have not been given the supports necessary to succeed. And it’s ultimately a school board’s responsibility to ensure that those supports are provided.
So in Houston, even with recent improvements, even with the good intentions of many, Houston ISD as a system continues to allow chronically low achievement in multiple schools. State intervention has been necessary for several years to try to shore up supports for students. State intervention has also been necessary to ensure that students receive the special education services that they’re legally entitled to.
So parents, teachers have high expectations for kids. Back to my role as commissioner of education, it’s important for me to maintain high expectations for school boards. So this is ultimately about an intervention action for the school board.
In addition to the board of managers, state law also requires that I appoint a superintendent. Until we announce the actual board of managers and superintendent later this school year, actually later this calendar year, the current district leadership will remain in place. I’m particularly thankful to Superintendent House, who has been a very student-focused man of integrity putting the needs of kids first, and has worked in Houston very capably the last couple of years. And will continue to serve during this transition with my full support.
So what we’re announcing today doesn’t actually change anything immediately in Houston ISD. No action takes effect immediately. This week’s decision doesn’t make any immediate changes. Instead, our plan is to, for the next few months, ensure that we can recruit a very talented board of managers for Houston ISD. So if you go to our website today, as somebody who lives in Houston, you can see an online application process. We made a very transparent process to go through this, to find the best people to serve on the board of managers in Houston.
And so, for those that are people of integrity and wisdom and interested in supporting kids, who truly love kids, and are interested in serving, we encourage them to go to our website and apply and apply soon. Once we finish the process of evaluating these prospective board of managers, that’s when we will take formal action. We would anticipate that happening on or about June 1 and not really before then, because we think it will take us that long to go through the recruitment and training process.
Q: What grounds are you specifically citing for the board of managers process, and is this a resumption of the earlier effort to install a board of managers, or is this a new effort?
A: Yeah, this is essentially a resumption of the former action. So we have been, as you know, enjoined by courts for the better part of three full years until very recently. And so, the Texas Supreme Court overruled all the injunctions and threw out all the lower court rulings on the case, which allows us to return to what law was interpreted to be at the time of the intervention order.
Specifically, the enforcement memo that was sent to the district today cites two legal authorities. One is a multiyear placement of a conservator. So, you had a conservator placed in the district for five-plus years, you actually have a couple additional conservators to support special education that have been placed for a couple school years now as well. And in addition to the multiyear placement of a conservator, the issue of the performance in Wheatley (High School) in 2019 was five — it was actually more than five years — of consecutive unacceptable ratings. And so that then triggers a provision in law that requires either the closure of Wheatley or a board of managers order. And we’re not ordering the closure of Wheatley. Instead, we’re ordering a board of managers.
Q: There are many Houston ISD families that are asking, ‘What does a board of managers mean for my child?’ There are many Houston ISD employees asking, ‘What does this mean for my employment?’ What is your response to that question?
A: It’s a great question and I think everyone in Houston should know, first and foremost, this is about improving student supports, and improving the structure of supports provided to students. But ultimately, the action that we’re taking is about the school board itself. So every other year, there are newly elected school board members that come in place, and sometimes people see changes from that. Sometimes they don’t. The appointed board of managers is not dissimilar. It’s essentially the same kind of change. It’s a change in the governing body. So for teachers in Houston, they are people of extraordinary skill and passion. They’ve got a job to do to educate eager young minds. That should continue. And, in fact, nothing is changing immediately. The appointed board would not take place until June 1 or thereafter.
So, for parents, again, I’ll put my dad hat on, I want to make sure that my kids are in a great school. So if you’re in a school that is serving you well in Houston ISD, there’s no reason to think that that’s going to change as a result of any of this news.
Q: Why have you chosen to appoint a board of managers and essentially, for a period of time, remove the democratically elected trustees here? Why have you chosen to do that rather than close Wheatley High School?
A: Yeah, in each of these cases, we have to look at what is in the best interest of students and what are the root causes that require state intervention in the first place.
In this particular case, it’s about the leadership at the top. Making sure that we have a school board that is focused on ensuring that all kids in Houston, not just some kids in Houston, have access to great schools. That’s not easy to do. This is very difficult work. But it does require focus and tenacity. And ultimately, if we ordered the closure of Wheatley, that doesn’t improve the education of kids in Wheatley.
So what we want to do is, we want to make sure we’re serving students most effectively. And so that’s ultimately the reason for the board of managers.
Q: There’s a significant contingent of Houstonians who look at Houston ISD and say, ‘This is a B-rated district that is overall scoring higher than other districts, including Dallas ISD. It’s on solid financial footing. Wheatley scored a C grade this past year. Nearly all of the trustees that were accused of misconduct are no longer on the board. The state does not have a very strong track record of significantly improving academic results through a board of managers. And the state does not have the greatest track record when it comes to special education. So why is the TEA still doing this?’ What is your response to those Houstonians?
A: It is true you’ve got several newly elected board members since 2019. Superintendent House is, of course, relatively new in the district. And these folks are trying to move the district forward. And the district has seen improvement. That is true.
But you also have, again, campuses that had been chronically underperforming for, in some cases, more than a decade. And the structures that are necessary to provide support for those campuses have not yet borne fruit. They’ve not yet been put in place where they ultimately are.
This intervention action was ordered in 2019 and we have been stayed by court proceedings since then. So, ultimately, it’s still the same intervention action that’s required in 2019. And while the most recent year’s performance in Houston showed a great deal of growth — so where students were in 2021 versus where students were in 2022, there was a large amount of growth — but achievement as a whole in the district is actually not better today than it was in 2019. It is worse.
Q: You could say that for many districts, though, in Texas.
A: Of course. But the issue that necessitated intervention was the fact that some campuses in Houston have seen chronically low achievement due to inadequate supports from the district. This is essentially about the system of Houston ISD and how is that system designed. Not to achieve perfection, because we do not live in a utopia. But to make sure that if there is some struggle that begins to surface at a campus, that it doesn’t take a decade before that is remedied. That, in fact, supports are provided immediately. That’s what needs to happen.
I would also say that, one of the things that you mentioned was the history of state interventions. So there have been seven board of managers placements in school districts in the last two decades for the purposes of operating school districts. There’s a variety of other potential interventions that one could look at, but given our records, there’s only seven where a board of managers assignment was made. And three of those were for academic reasons, and four of those were essentially financial or governance related reasons.
In every academic intervention, achievement went up as a result of the board of managers. And in fact, it went up in all of those except in once instance where achievement remained unchanged. And that particular placement was for financial reasons. So, under no circumstance has achievement declined as a result of a board of managers intervention in Texas.
Q: In your mind, what will be the priorities and goals of this board of managers?
We think about this in terms of what we want to see happen. And there’s really three key criteria that we’d like to see be true. One is, we don’t want to see any more multiyear D or F campuses in Houston. Period. Two, we want to see special education that operates in full compliance with statutory requirements, both state and federal. And then, three, we want to make sure that the board has adopted procedures and is conducting itself in a way that is consistently focused on improving student outcomes and not something else.
Q: How long do you envision a board of managers remaining in place?
So there are specific statutory guidelines in terms of the timeline framework that is used. The overarching guidance, however, is that the underlying conditions that necessitated the board of managers action initially be addressed. And those get to those three key conditions that I just spoke about. So, we’re required, I’m specifically required, to ensure that we are evaluating that continuously and that we make decisions no later than two years or two more years thereafter.
So I can’t say with precision how long the board of managers would remain in place. This is certainly temporary. It’s not permanent. We just want to ensure that the underlying structural factors that required this action in the first place are addressed.
Q: Historically, board of managers have tended to be in the two, three, four, five, six year range.
A: That’s right.
Q: Is there any reason to believe this appointment would last longer than that?
A: None. I think the same range that you would see for historic board of managers orders would be this. I think, again, if you look at the seven board of managers placements that have been made in the last two decades for the purposes of running ISD’s, they’ve ranged from two to six years. I don’t see any reason why it would be any different here.
Q: You referenced earlier Superintendent House and your legal authority to replace him in this process. Do you intend to replace him?
A: Superintendent House, I think, has been a great leader for kids in Houston and he’s a man of integrity and ethics. He’s been working hard to try to drive change. But if you look at the statute, the statute says when I appoint a board of managers, I also have to appoint a superintendent. And the consideration there is to make sure that you have a unified governing team that is best positioned to move forward and move forward aggressively. And so ultimately, this is about creating a bit of a fresh start at the governance level, not for any other reason. I think under other circumstances, the situation would be different. But we want to make sure that we set up a fresh start for the leadership team of the district.
Q: To be clear, does that mean yes?
A: We will be naming a new superintendent at the time when we name a board of managers. I am interested in Superintendent House’s leadership, and during the time of transition, he will have my full support, he’ll have the full support of our conservators. We want to continue that he is continuing to lead the district effectively. And I want to make sure that his institutional knowledge and expertise is kept as long as he is willing to continue to provide it to the district.
Q: There are some Houston ISD residents who believe a board of managers appointed by Gov. Abbott’s education commissioner will implement educational policies, such as the expansion of charter schools, that tend to be more favored by conservatives in a district that, like Houston ISD, is majority Democrat. How much influence will potential managers’ political and educational policy leanings play in your selection?
A: First and foremost, we’re interested in individuals that believe all children can learn and achieve at high levels when properly supported, and that they can work together as a governance team. I would prefer people who do not have ideological blinders, one way or the other. They need to come in with wisdom and eyes wide open and make decisions in a very complex environment that are in the best interest of kids. And this requires people that can think very, very clearly. That have an understanding of creating a culture of servant leadership and systems leadership. There’s not any specific agenda other than what is in the best interest of kids that we want to see pursued.
Q: By law, the board of managers, as we’ve discussed, is expected to remain in place for an indefinite period. As such, there’s the possibility that an appointed board could implement some major policies that the local community does not like. And then the elected board, once it retakes power, could immediately reverse those policies, potentially causing even more instability in the district. How, if at all, will you advise an appointed board on considering the local community’s views when debating new policies?
A: It’s a great question. So, it is our expectation that the board of managers would engage with the elected board of trustees throughout this process. You got many good people who are on the board of trustees. Elections will continue to happen. When the board of managers is done, it will revert back to electoral control and we want to make sure that we have done everything to ensure the voice of the elected individuals are there at the table throughout this process.
So board members are themselves going to be Houstonians. They’re going to function much like elected trustees. They’re going to have friends and neighbors that give them advice, solicited or not. They’re going to hear from people that work in the school district. They’re going to hear from kids. They’re going to get reports from senior leadership. And try to govern the district accordingly. But these are Houstonians. And we want to make sure that they’re bringing their best wisdom to the table to make good decisions for kids. But we also want to make sure that throughout this time period, that the board of trustees remains engaged to the extent that they wish to be in an advisory capacity throughout so that the return back to electoral control can be as seamless as possible.
Q: You’ve had a state-appointed conservator in place in HISD for several years now. By law, a conservator has the power to order some pretty major changes in the district. Why didn’t the conservator order or direct more changes to ensure Wheatley met state standards so that we didn’t reach this position where the school district is losing democratic control over its school board?
A: It’s a great question. The conservator did actually take pretty aggressive action in support of Kashmere (High School). One of the problems that was surfaced very quickly when state intervention began was a lack of consistent exposure to certified math teachers for students at Kashmere. So the conservator had to issue some directives related to ensuring math teachers were available in Kashmere. And that action helped Kashmere ultimately meet standard the year that Wheatley did not.
Since the injunction has been in place — in 2019 the injunction applied not only to me, but it also limited the authority of the conservator for the last three years. In some cases, the conservator was hamstrung to take necessary intervention actions for the last three years.
Q: But that was not the case in 2017 and 2018, which is a period in which Wheatley was really struggling and in need of support. And a conservator was in the district. Why did she not act more aggressively during that period?
A: Yeah, it’s a great question, and it’s just important to understand what conservators can do both in law and what they can do in point of fact. You still have an elected school board that is setting budget, setting policy. In some areas, the school board can be overruled. But in others, it can’t. The conservator cannot prevent a school board member from showing up on campus and bossing people around. And that was a fairly common occurrence in former years. And then the conservator’s not the superintendent. So ultimately, people report to their bosses in the system. And so the actions that a conservator can take, that they can take effectively, are sometimes narrower. Sort of like, ‘I see this individual problem, and I need this individual problem addressed.’ It’s different than ensuring that employees are working in sort of a unified fashion, cross-functionally, to accomplish objectives for kids.
Q: Some residents of Houston ISD believe that there are politics at play here. That Gov. Abbott is ordering this action as a mechanism for expanding his preferred policies. Vouchers obviously being a hot topic at the moment. What is the extent of your conversations with Gov. Abbott about the Houston ISD situation, and how would you characterize those conversations?
A: So, this action’s not instigated by the governor. This action is instigated by the laws of the state legislature. And I am in a position where I’m actually required to act, due to the chronic issues related to inadequate support at Wheatley that led to the 2019 accountability ratings. There are other issues that authorize us to act as well. So the conversations that I’ve had with the governor have all revolved around: What’s in the best interest of students? And take the actions that are in the best interest of kids. Period.
Q: Lastly, three members of Houston’s state legislative delegation have filed a bill that would make it optional, rather than mandatory, for the commissioner to install a board of managers or close a campus following five consecutive failing grades at a school. If that bill passes, will it have any influence on your decision to appoint a board of managers in HISD?
A: Potentially. It’s hard to comment on legislation that is filed through the legislative process. But what we have announced today is that a board of managers would likely be appointed on or about June 1. And so, that would allow for the Legislature to deliberate on this to discern whether or not they want to change the policy framework.
Of course, the Legislature has had an opportunity to do that since this was ordered in 2019. And so, there was an entire legislative session. And they did pass laws during that legislative session — passed a law — related to this. That law only actually expanded the requirements related to intervention. It didn’t reduce any discretionary authority.
Q: Thank you very much for your time, commissioner.
A: Of course, thank you, sir.