Texas Revamps Houston Schools, Closing Libraries and Angering Parents

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Cheryl Hensley, a librarian in Houston, was thrilled about the start of the school year. As a veteran educator with four decades of experience in the city’s public school system, she had invested $40,000 in new books for Lockhart Elementary, a predominantly black school, and received a statewide award for her efforts. However, her excitement quickly turned to disappointment when she was informed that her services were no longer required. The school’s library, along with many others in low-income schools, was being converted into multipurpose computer rooms and disciplinary spaces.

This decision to remove librarians and effectively close libraries in some of Houston’s poorest schools has sparked controversy. The action was taken by new school leaders who were appointed to the district and its 187,000 predominantly black and Hispanic students by Governor Greg Abbott. The state of Texas took over the Houston Independent School District earlier this year due to chronic underperformance, allegations of misconduct, and changes in state law that facilitated such takeovers.

The new superintendent, Mike Miles, a former Army Ranger, State Department diplomat, and charter school network founder, has wasted no time in implementing a new education plan for the district. The focus is on improving reading and math scores in elementary and middle schools, as well as addressing achievement gaps between black and Hispanic students and their white peers. However, the decision to close libraries has triggered a debate about the effectiveness of state takeovers and the impact on public education.

Beth Schueler, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Education, has studied state takeovers and found a mixed record of success. While some have been effective in the lowest-performing districts, they generally have a neutral to negative effect overall. The takeover of Houston’s schools, one of the largest in history, could set a precedent for future takeovers.

Many critics of the takeover in Houston have voiced concerns about the loss of local input and the potential for undermining public education. They worry that the Republican-led state government aims to drive parents towards charter or private schools. However, some parents and former board members argue that the district has not done enough to address educational disparities and support the new leadership. The tension between these viewpoints reflects a broader political context marked by efforts to limit local power and shape public schools’ direction.

Despite the controversy, the state-run administration hopes to create a new education system in underperforming schools. The plan includes a focus on reading and math, incentivizing teachers based on standardized test scores, and hiring community members to teach elective courses. Libraries will be converted into “team rooms,” where students may be assigned to work individually on laptops, while others can still borrow books outside of class time. However, critics argue that this approach risks creating a two-tiered system of education.

Mayor Sylvester Turner has strongly criticized the takeover, accusing Superintendent Miles of dismantling the largest educational district in the state and creating uneven access to resources among schools. The political tensions surrounding the takeover align with broader efforts to constrain Democratic-led cities and change the direction of public schools nationwide. Some parents and educators view the takeover as politically motivated and question the decision-making process.

The takeover is now facing growing opposition, with protests outside the district’s headquarters and calls for a Justice Department investigation into the disenfranchisement of voters of color. Despite this, several former board members have expressed support for Superintendent Miles and believe he should be given a chance to succeed. The plan’s initial focus is on elementary and middle schools that feed into underperforming high schools, aiming to tackle the achievement gap from an early age.

While the new plan has garnered mixed reactions, it remains to be seen whether it will effectively address the district’s educational challenges. The debate over the closure of libraries highlights the larger issue of the state’s role in shaping public education and the ongoing struggle to provide equitable resources and opportunities for all students.

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