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Texas' takeover of Houston's public schools is in motion, but do takeovers work?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A political fight is brewing over the fate of Houston's public schools. The state of Texas says it is taking over the Houston Independent School District. That is the eighth largest district in the nation. It's home to nearly 200,000 students. Republican Governor Greg Abbott and state education officials announced the move last week, citing poor academic performance in the district, among other reasons. But Democrats in the state counter that the move is politically driven. Here to explain more is Domingo Morel, author of the book "Takeover: Race, Education, And American Democracy." He's also an associate professor at New York University. Welcome.

DOMINGO MOREL: Thank you, Ailsa - nice to be with you.

CHANG: Nice to have you. So first, can you just briefly explain what happens next in this process? Like, what does a district takeover entail exactly?

MOREL: Usually what it means is the state authority - and the case in Texas will be the commissioner of education - they move towards removing the local school board in Houston, replacing it with an appointed board. And then this appointed board will now resume the responsibility of governance for the Houston Independent School District.

CHANG: Well, you know, Houston's school district is 62% Latino, 22% Black. How likely is it that the new board of managers for this district will actually resemble the district they represent?

MOREL: So my research shows that when the state takes over a district and appoints a new board, that board is actually racially representative of the community. So I suspect that new board will represent the city of Houston. The concern is who is this board going to be accountable to, right? So it's going to be accountable to the state, not to the residents of the city of Houston. And people who are rooted in the communities - even when they are on the board, they might find it very frustrating when they see that what they thought they will be able to do at the board is not in line with what the state wants to do.

CHANG: Interesting. Well, beyond the issue of accountability, I mean, how successful are state takeovers in improving academic performance?

MOREL: We don't have any good evidence that takeovers improved educational outcomes. On the other hand, what is clear is the political consequences for the community - losing the ability to have a representative body at the school board, things like school closures, things like the firing of teachers, the superintendent, all these kinds of things that matter to communities. They lose the ability to have influence over this.

CHANG: The officials in Texas - they keep talking consistently about this poor academic performance as the rationale for the takeover. But a Census Bureau survey showed that Texas spent $3,000 less per student than the national average in 2020. So how big of a factor do you think that underfunding is in explaining schools' poor academic performance?

MOREL: Lack of adequate funding in the state of Texas, particularly for a city like Houston, can help explain a lot of the challenges. And so this is why, particularly in communities that are lower-resource, it's important that they receive the funding. And oftentimes the city themselves cannot provide all of the funding, and they need outside funding. And this is where the state is supposed to come in and provide those additional resources. Texas is not coming in to the city of Houston to say, we're going to provide more resources and the supports that you need. They're coming in to take over and separate communities from their schools.

CHANG: Well, ultimately, then, according to your research, what actually works to improve schools' academic performance?

MOREL: One, again, is adequately funding the schools. Another one is having experienced teachers that have deep connections to the students and that community, having representation at the school board level, teacher level, administrative, level, also having, you know, wonderful programs that students enjoy, that keep students active in schools. All of these kinds of things are associated with improving education. Takeovers are not really associated with this. In fact, they're associated with the opposite. They don't come in to open more schools. They come in to close schools. And they don't come in to create a collective type of environment between community, parents, teachers and others. They come in, and they separate that, right? So the kind of things that go into improving schools when the state takeover comes in - they actually do the opposite.

CHANG: That is NYU professor Domingo Morel, the author of "Takeover: Race, Education, And American Democracy." Thank you very much for joining us today.

MOREL: Well, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TENDAI SONG, "TIME IN OUR LIVES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.