Texas is replacing Houston’s school libraries with ‘discipline centers,’ but the community is fighting back

After the state of Texas took over Houston Independent School District, the state-installed superintendent moved to eliminate dozens of school libraries and turn them into “discipline centers.” Under this perverse plan, students in primarily Black and Brown schools will be removed from their classrooms for disciplinary reasons, then brought into the remnants of their own schools’ libraries to watch their own classes remotely.

This is the latest in a number of obscene changes made by the new school board in what amounts to a hostile takeover of the state’s largest school district — the eighth largest in the United States — by Governor Greg Abbott. But community members are fighting back, not just to guarantee local autonomy, but to fight against the growing threat of the school-to-prison pipeline that is being imposed on them.

A state power grab years in the making

HISD has been the subject of a years-long legal battle which recently culminated in the state seizing control of the district this summer. Public education advocates say that the HISD takeover represents the latest attempt of the far-right state government to weaken public schools and push a racist agenda that diverts resources from Black and Brown communities to fund private charter schools that are accountable to no one.

HISD has dealt with internal issues prior to the state takeover. But the state has taken advantage of these internal contradictions — not to fix them for the community, but to take complete control, push a far-right agenda, and hollow out the right to public education.

In 2019, a state investigation found the elected school board in violation of multiple laws and recommended that they be replaced by a new board of the state’s choosing. In the years that followed, voters elected an almost entirely new school board while the legal battle for a state takeover dragged on in the background.

At the same time, HISD had to contend with a 2015 Texas state law that allows the state to take over an entire school district if just one school in the district is rated F in standardized test performance for 5 consecutive years. Standardized test scores and school ranking systems are constantly being arbitrarily changed, as are their metrics for “success.” This presents the perfect moving goalpost for the state to engineer the results it wants.

HISD as a whole scored a B rating and had only nine “underperforming” schools. But this wasn’t enough. The Texas Education Association, whose leaders are appointed directly by Abbott, changed the grade of one school to an F at the last minute. With this change, the right-wing state Supreme Court finally had the justification they had been seeking to seize the entire district.

Abbott’s TEA moved quickly, removing the entire school board and replacing them with an unelected “board of managers” who largely live in rich parts of town and have no stake in the wellbeing of working-class students. In at least one case, the TEA replaced a board member with the right-wing candidate she had defeated in the last election, in effect overturning the election.

The TEA also appointed a new superintendent, Mike Miles, a former Army officer who had a stint in the U.S. State Department before becoming the CEO of a network of charter schools. Miles was once tapped to lead Dallas ISD, where those who worked with him describe a culture of intimidation, dramatic turnover rates, and a notable lack of respect for the community. How can someone with a history of failure in other school districts, who has been financially tied to the privatization and corporatization of schools, be expected to “fix” Houston public schools?

What does this mean for HISD?

Now that Miles’s plans for HISD have leaked out, it is clear that this is a hatchet job. Miles will focus on 25 schools, all of which are located in predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods with high rates of poverty, unemployment, food deserts, poor infrastructure and heightened flood risk. Rather than increasing resources, Miles plans to increase surveillance and police presence in schools, decrease recess time, and subject students to endless standardized test prep and a state-written, one-size-fits-all curriculum.

Most disturbing of all, librarian positions will be cut and libraries converted into disciplinary areas where misbehaving students will be sent to watch lessons remotely via webcam. Instead of serving as a safe harbor where kids can cultivate a love of learning, libraries will be makeshift detention centers meant to segregate the most vulnerable kids from their classmates and deprive them of the support they desperately need.

Parents and community members have consistently voiced their concerns to Miles and the unelected school board, but their words seem to be falling on deaf ears. Miles has been dismissive to the myriad of complaints raised at public meetings.

Families of special education students have been particularly concerned about the lack of transparency, telling local media that Miles has ignored their questions at community meetings and offered scant details about his plans for overhauling special education departments. Leaders of the local teachers’ unions have also sounded alarm bells about Miles’ plans to decrease their involvement in district decision making. The current policies required HISD to hold monthly consultation meetings with employee groups and unions before making changes to wages, hours or working conditions. Miles is trying to change that. His new proposal states that the district “may consult” with employee groups regarding these issues, but will no longer require it. Having essentially executed a coup of HISD leadership, the superintendent and the board now refuse to hear the people fighting their reign.

Texas is moving to quash local autonomy, but the fightback is just beginning!

Within the first few days of the announcement, community members and activists hit the streets to express their outrage. Parents throughout the city gathered at their local schools to hand out informational cards about the TEA takeover and talk to fellow parents about a petition. Meanwhile, hundreds of high school students across multiple campuses staged walkouts to protest the state seizure of their school district. Kids marched around the block undeterred by rain, chanting together and carrying handmade signs.

Leaders from the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice held a press conference to announce that they are filing a lawsuit against the Texas Education Agency over the seizure of HISD. They pointed out that the state of Texas has a long history of targeting minority schools, saying that “this is just another step toward doing away with rights of Latinos and African Americans; it’s a process of marginalization.”

A public education advocacy group called Community Voices for Public Education has been particularly tireless in their fight to defend HISD students and teachers. Over the last few months, the organization has staged protests, gathered petition signatures and created educational content. They also hold regular “block walk” sessions to bring the community together around this issue.

Parents have been some of the loudest voices in the fight. At the first public meeting with the new superintendent, a crowd of 150 people protested the meeting. Once the meeting started, dissenters filed in and chanted protest slogans, drowning out the voices of the board as they voted to approve Mike Miles’ interim contract for superintendent. The protesters chanted “TEA Go Away” and “No Justice, No Peace!” as they waited for their opportunity to line up at the microphone and voice their anger about the state’s plans for their children. One parent told Miles to look her in the face while she asked him, “Is it really about student outcomes and student approaches, or is it about your ego? Now I’ve lost my democratic ability to make decisions about my children’s education. […] My major question is when are you leaving? […] Because when you leave, it’s going to be us picking up the pieces.” 

After Miles’ plan to convert libraries into discipline rooms made headlines earlier this month, protests escalated. Hundreds of people gathered to rally outside district headquarters, chanting together in the heat to demand changes to the unpopular policy proposal. The following week, several hundred people gathered at a “read-in” at the most recent school board meeting, sprawling out while reading their favorite books in solidarity with the ousted librarians that Miles has deemed extraneous. As the meeting began, several dozen people stood for hours with their backs to the board, holding up protest signs for TV cameras. One attendee delivered three large boxes to the board stuffed full of 2,000 signed letters from community members detailing their opposition.

The ultimate impact of the HISD takeover remains to be seen, but the community has made their position clear. They will defend their right to public education by any means necessary.

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