Texas Law & School District Takeovers

What does Texas law say about school takeovers? 

Current law allows for state intervention in schools that do not meet predetermined accountability standards. The most extreme outcome of these interventions is a state takeover in which the education commissioner is compelled to replace the superintendent and locally elected school board with a board of managers and a conservator to run the district.

While recent events center on the impending Houston ISD takeover, the law affects all school districts throughout the state. This is troubling considering the mixed results of state takeover on student outcomes. 

HB 1842, 84(R)

In 2015, the 84th Texas Legislature passed HB 1842. The bill, now law, outlines the process by which the state may intervene on a campus that fails to meet state accountability ratings for two consecutive years:

  1. First, the commissioner must order the underperforming campus to prepare and submit a campus turnaround plan, for which the commissioner has final approval. The plan must include targeted plans to improve student performance with input from parents and other community stakeholders. Districts may also request assistance from a regional education service center or partner with an Institution of Higher Education to develop and implement the plan. 
  2. Then, the campus submits its turnaround plan for approval by the school board.
  3. The commissioner has sole authority to approve the plan, take over the district, or close the school altogether.
    • If the campus turnaround plan is approved, the campus must satisfy student performance standards by the second year following the plan’s implementation. 
    • If the plan is implemented and is not successful in returning the campus to acceptable status within two years, the commissioner must either close the campus, order alternative management, or appoint a board of managers to intervene at the district level.
    • If the campus turnaround plan is not approved, the commissioner can take over by replacing the elected school board with an appointed board of managers to govern the district, or close the campus altogether. 

SB 1365, 87(R)

TEA notified HISD of their intent to appoint a board of managers and a new superintendent in 2019, citing Texas law that authorizes a state takeover once a district demonstrates an inability to improve student achievement over time at low-performing campuses. In response, HISD immediately sought a temporary injunction to prevent the takeover. The district contended that Commissioner Morath exceeded his authority under the law and was granted an injunction, temporarily halting the state takeover. In 2021, SB 1365 was filed as a response to the lawsuit, stating that the bill “clarifies provisions put in place by the Legislature regarding TEA procedures when placing sanctions on accountability, investigations, and interventions.” 

After several amendments and legislative attempts to stop the bill, it was finally passed. The companion bill, HB 3270, was killed on a point of order. 

SB 1365, now law, clearly states that if a campus is considered to have an unacceptable performance rating for five consecutive school years (previously three), the commissioner shall appoint a board of managers to govern the school district or order the closure of the campus. Under the law, districts are restricted from using public funds to challenge the commissioner’s “final and unappealable” decision. The bill also made it so any campus that would have received a D or F rating would be “Not Rated” for the 2021-2022 school year due to COVID-19. However, a “Not Rated” performance rating could not be considered a break in consecutive years of unacceptable performance. This provision applied retroactively, beginning with the 2018-2019 school year. 

Teacher unions opposed the bill, arguing that it provided the commissioner, an unelected official, significantly more power over the management of neighborhood public schools, usurping democratically elected school board members and further reducing oversight in the decision-making process. 

History of State Takeovers in Texas

The TEA has taken control of 15 districts over three decades — four districts have closed since the takeover; five came to a settlement in court or did not proceed with a board of managers; four were taken over then had local control restored; and two are still under state control. The largest district that the TEA has taken control of is El Paso ISD, a district with around 50,000 students, nowhere near the 200,000 student population of HISD. 

Do State Takeovers Work? Results are Mixed. 

Recent reporting by the Houston Chronicle highlights a 2021 study by Beth Schueler from the University of Virginia and Joshua Bleiberg at Brown University that compared data from state takeovers from 2011 to 2016. The study found “no evidence that takeover generates academic benefits.” 

There are a few cases with positive improvements after state intervention. Unfortunately, these cases appear few and far between. In 2011, the state took over a chronically underperforming school in Massachusetts. The ​​district was among the poorest in the state and included a large subset of students with a first language other than English. Substantial jumps in reading and math were seen after state-appointed officials focused on improving teacher and administrator quality, increasing classroom learning time, and targeted small-group instruction. 

Other examples show districts in decline after state takeover. In Detroit, the state took control of the public school system for 15 years. The takeover left schools worse off; school buildings deteriorated from neglect, and families fled public schools for charters. In the cases where improvement was seen, state takeovers led to the conversion of schools into autonomous charters, like in New Orleans. Overall, state takeovers have shown mixed results.

The 88th Legislature 

HB 3780 makes it so the commissioner’s decision to take over a district is permissible rather than mandatory and outlines several alternatives already included in statute that the commissioner may act on. 

Because student performance is closely linked with socioeconomic factors, research has shown that increasing school funding can boost achievement among students with limited resources. In HISD, for example, nearly 80% of students are economically disadvantaged. Several pieces of legislation have been introduced to increase student funding by raising the basic allotment or funding districts based on enrollment rather than attendance. 

The LSG will continue to monitor related legislation as the session progresses.