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Will the Texas Takeover of Houston Public Schools Work?

With the Texas Education Agency poised to take over the day-to-day running of the Houston Independent School district, tempers are flaring. Critics deride the move as an effort to disempower communities of color. Supporters fire back that local leaders are failing to educate the kids. But it’s too soon to say with any confidence which side is closer to the truth.

Unlike many other developed countries, the US has a long tradition of localism in running its public schools. In general, the tradition is one I applaud. I’ve long taken the view that the constituency the schools serve is families. Thus control of public education should be at the level where parents will have the most influence. This framing, I believe, is particularly important in the education of Black children.

But the model doesn’t always work. For one thing, localism has too often been a tool for facilitating invidious discrimination. For another, a large urban district is far too big for us to pretend that parents have any serious influence. And of course, no matter how passionate the local community might be about education, sometimes the schools fail.

That’s the issue in Houston, where the struggle over who’s to blame — and who should take charge — has been going on for years. In January, the Texas Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by the district. The justices ruled that the state has legal authority to take over Houston’s schools for failing to meet educational standards. Since then, things have moved fast. The Texas Education Agency is already taking applications for membership on the board of managers that will “temporarily” run the district.

As a country, we’ve been down this road over and over. The first major takeover came in 1989, when New Jersey took over public education in Jersey City. A few years later, Paterson and Newark followed. At the time we saw much the same debate, with opponents arguing racial motivation and supporters insisting they were in it for the kids.

Other states followed. California took over Compton schools in 1993. In 2006, Maryland tried to seize control of at least some Baltimore public schools, but the legislature sided with the city. In 1995, a federal judge ordered Ohio to take over Cleveland schools. (Ohio swiftly bailed out, handing control to the city’s mayor.) Massachusetts has grabbed the reins at struggling school districts in Lawrence and Holyoke, and has lately flirted with seizing control of Boston’s troubled system.

The list goes on and on. Small wonder. Survey data indicate strong popular support for state takeovers of underperforming public schools. Although among Black respondents the divide is much closer, even there a plurality is in favor. When cherished institutions fail, blame understandably percolates upward toward those who run them.

But when all the blaming and anger is put aside, the question that surely matters most is whether transferring control of local schools to a state agency makes an actual difference. Alas, we lack sufficient data to be sure. Although scholars have long understood that a state takeover of a local district tends to improve fiscal discipline, studies of student performance have reached conflicting conclusions — so conflicting that partisan observers can easily pick and choose.

Certainly, there are remarkable success stories. After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Louisiana effectively scrapped the entire New Orleans school district, creating in its stead an entirely new system that features many more charter schools, no attendance lines, and no teacher tenure. Student performance surged, and has stayed high.

Now every state with suffering schools wants to be Louisiana. But that’s not necessarily how things work out. New Jersey’s takeover of Newark schools had little effect until the “Facebook Gift” in 2010 — when CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged $100 million — which significantly lifted reading but not math scores. Tennessee built its much-touted Achievement School District on the New Orleans model, but a 2017 study found little effect on how well kids learned. (One possible cause is relatively high staff turnover.) Sometimes — as in Lawrence, Massachusetts — the state takeover leads to an initial bump in performance but not a continuing upward trend.

The upshot is that we can’t predict what’s going to happen in Houston’s schools. We’re much too early in the game for partisans to pretend that the answer is already clear. We just have to let matters play out.

If Texas succeeds in turning around Houston’s schools, perhaps those of us who favor localism will have to rethink. If it fails, the ones who suffer most will be the children — who of course, as everyone agrees, should come first.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A professor of law at Yale University, he is author, most recently, of “Invisible: The Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America’s Most Powerful Mobster.”

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