Houston Schools Turning Libraries into Discipline Rooms as State Takeover Goes into Full Gear!

Photo of empty school library

Dear Commons Community,

The decision to fire librarians and effectively close libraries in some of the city’s poorest schools has been the most contentious yet made by a new set of Houston public school leaders who were imposed on the district and its 187,000 mostly Black and Hispanic students this year by the administration of Gov. Greg Abbott. In many schools, libraries will be turned into discipline rooms.

The state of Texas this spring took over the Houston Independent School District, one of the nation’s largest school systems, and replaced its elected school board and the superintendent. The move had been years in the making, following chronic poor performance at some schools, past allegations of misconduct by school trustees and changes in state law — backed by a moderate Black Democrat from Houston — that made it easier for the state to take over school districts.

Since then, the new superintendent — a former Army Ranger, State Department diplomat and founder of a charter school network who has no official certification for the Houston job — has moved swiftly to adopt a new plan for educating the district’s children, focusing on rapidly improving reading and math scores in dozens of elementary and middle schools.  As reported by The New York Times.

“The future is here, and we’re behind,” the superintendent, Mike Miles, said at a community meeting this month, describing persistent achievement gaps between Houston students and others around the state, and between the district’s Black and Hispanic students and their white classmates. “It means we have to do bold things now.”

State takeovers of troubled local school systems — a common occurrence around the country — have a mixed record of success, said Beth Schueler, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Education who has studied them. Those that succeeded were generally carried out in districts that were already among the nation’s lowest performing, she said, and on average they have had a neutral to negative effect.

“This is one of the largest takeovers we’ve had,” she said of Houston, and could provide a pathway for others to follow, or to avoid.

As the takeover began this year, many parents and teachers in Houston, a strongly Democratic city, complained about the loss of input into their schools, and worried that the ultimate goal of state Republican leaders was to undermine support for public education and drive Houston parents to charter or private schools.

But others, including parents and several of the replaced board members, said the district had not done enough to educate students in its struggling schools and urged patience with the new leadership.

The takeover started in the spring, as Mr. Abbott, a Republican and charter school supporter, was crisscrossing Texas to promote the use of state money for private school vouchers. The governor said his push for “parental empowerment” was separate from the Houston takeover, which he has called for since at least 2019. The Texas education commissioner, Mike Morath, has said the takeover was necessary to quickly address needed changes at the poorest-performing schools, despite improvements made even before the takeover. The district last year earned a “B” grade from the state.

With the first day of school approaching on Aug. 28, critics of the takeover have grown louder. This month, more than 200 people gathered in protest outside the district’s headquarters. “Houston Occupied School District,” read one sign. “Even prisons have libraries,” read another.

“It doesn’t feel right,” said Jessica Campos, 41, a parent at Pugh Elementary, a Spanish dual-language school slated for immediate changes. “I lose sleep over this. It’s a serious thing. These are our children and we’re not having a say in our children’s education, and that is not OK.”

The new state-run administration said it hoped to create a “new education system” in elementary and middle schools that feed into poor-performing high schools. The new approach includes a focus on reading and math, paying teachers more when their students score higher on standardized tests and shifting time-consuming tasks, such as making copies or grading work or writing lesson plans, from teachers to other staff members. Schools will also hire community members to teach elective courses like photography and spin classes.

Under the plan, libraries in some schools would become “team rooms,” which may be a bit of a misnomer, a department spokesman acknowledged: Though some students could work in teams, those sent there for disrupting class would be expected to spend their time at individual desks, watching their classes on laptops.

Mr. Miles has said that given limited space and resources, the decision was a trade-off and that students in schools where libraries have been converted into team rooms would still be able to borrow books before or after school.

Still, Sylvester Turner, Houston’s mayor, said the effort risked creating two systems.

“He’s gone too far, and he’s dismantling the largest educational district in the state of Texas,” Mr. Turner said of Mr. Miles during a City Council hearing last month. “You cannot have a situation where you are closing libraries for some schools in certain neighborhoods, and there are other neighborhoods where there are libraries, fully equipped. What the hell are you doing?”

It sounds like “Houston we have a problem!”



Comments are closed.