Texas officials announced on Wednesday that they would be taking over Houston’s public school district, which is the eighth-largest in the U.S., deepening existing tensions between local Democratic leaders and the Republican majority-held statehouse.

In a letter sent to the superintendent and board members of the Houston Independent School District (HISD), Education Commissioner Mike Morath said that the recipients of the letter would be replaced with a new superintendent and board of managers chosen by the Texas Education Authority (TEA), and who will be officially instated on June 1.

People hold up signs at a news conference on March 3 in Houston while protesting the proposed takeover of the city’s school district by the Texas Education Agency. 

Juan A. Lozano / AP

Morath alleges that the board failed to improve student performance in Houston, citing Wheatley High School, which received a failing grade from the TEA in 2019, as an example. Additionally, Morath accuses the board of holding “chaotic board meetings marred by infighting,” adding that an investigation revealed “multiple violations of law in the district.”

“The district’s approach to supporting students with disabilities also continues to violate state and federal law,” wrote Morath, who referenced “significant systemic compliance problems, including an ongoing inability to provide special education services to students without delays.”

State Democratic lawmakers called the takeover “tragic” and “undignified” in a press conference following the morning’s announcement:

“Today is a very — and I emphasize very — dark day for HISD and the many Black and Brown students and communities that are within HISD,” said state Rep. Ron Reynolds, Chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, who emphasized that the takeover was coming even after demonstrated “continued exemplary growth” in the last five years.

“Taking over the district now, despite all of this, is dead wrong,” Reynolds said, adding that students and teachers would be “paying the price.”

The ACLU condemned the takeover, writing on Twitter that the “hostile takeover threatens to close schools, drive out teachers, and take away the power of local communities to elect their own leaders,” in a city already burdened by teacher shortages.

“The state takeover of HISD is not about public education — it’s about political control of a 90 percent Black and brown student body in one of the country’s most diverse cities. And it’s not what our students and teachers need,” continued the ACLU.

The Texas State Teachers Association also spoke out against the takeover, which it called an “injustice to students and educators,” in a statement posted to Facebook.

“The commissioner is not responsible to HISD parents and taxpayers,” wrote the Teachers Association of Morath. “He is responsible only to Gov. Greg Abbott, whose top education priority is taking millions of dollars in tax money from HISD and other public-school districts and transferring it to unregulated private schools. Abbott is less interested in supporting HISD and other public schools than he is in privatizing them.”

The Teachers Association also notes that the takeover is due in part to student performance on a standardized test called STARR, which they say “isn’t – and never has been – an accurate measure of student progress.”

While student progress in Houston has indeed faltered post-pandemic, that trend is not specific to the city, as performance in schools across the country struggles to rebound to 2019 data.

In 2022, the National Assessment of Educational Progress found that math and reading test scores declined nationwide post-pandemic. Scores for fourth and eighth graders in both categories dropped significantly from their 2019 counterparts, with math scores showing their biggest decline since initial assessments in 1990, and reading scores at their lowest in three decades.