Talking Houston ISD Takeover with Cassandra Jones
Cassandra Jones has worn many hats in public education. A former public school educator, Jones began addressing systemic inequities that impacted her students as a Regional Strategy Team member of Organizing Network for Education (ONE) – Houston. After her time in the classroom, she built and supported organizing teams across the state as the Director of Organizing Strategy for the Texas chapter of Leadership for Educational Equity. In addition, she trained over 500 people across the country in racial identity development, organizing, and building equitable organizations. Jones has mobilized communities to engage with the Texas Legislature to advocate for equitable education for the 5.4 million students in Texas.
I spoke with Jones in light of the state takeover of Houston ISD, where it’s likely that the average student could feel lost in the rapid news cycle.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Uyiosa: The news is the Texas Education Agency is taking over the HISD. What does that mean?
Cassandra: Law says the Commissioner of Education, who is appointed by the governor, can intervene in school districts that are “underperforming.” They, for the most part, call them “underperforming” based on test data. If a school district has a campus that has been “failing” for five consecutive school years, the Commissioner is required by law to appoint a board of managers or close the campus. So the current reason why TEA is taking over HISD is being placed on the shoulders of one school, a historic, predominantly Black, Wheatley High School that received failing grades in their campus ratings between 2010 and 2019.
Now, it’s very important to note that there has been significant improvement in the campus of Wheatley and in the school district test performance since then. And I believe this law does not account for that on purpose.
So that means the school board will be disbanded. It will be replaced by a board of managers that will be responsible for school board duties that includes school budget, tax rates and district policy, depending on how the state allows school boards to intervene in those things. They’ve also recently announced that they will also appoint a new superintendent.
Uyiosa: The public conversation about this takeover has relied on tons of school data, and stories about random adults. What are some helpful ways for youth across Houston to understand this massive change?
Cassandra: Yeah, I would say that, this conversation is very adult centered. A lot of [students] may not initially feel the shift, if they aren’t involved in Student Congress, or those kinds of things, or if they don’t currently interact or know much about the school board. That’s because takeovers are a very long process. With a board of managers in place, suddenly, funding decisions are made over time on behalf of students and families. With the bard of managers starting this summer, it could be a while before they see a change come to their particular school.
Now, what it can also look like and what I think it has looked like in some other districts is an assumption that once a board of managers is in place, that everything is going to be okay. Which leads to more, I think, massive public abandonment of a school district. Adults taking their eyes off of the way things are happening and the way things are working. People not referring to the school district at all until the end of this process, which could take up to five to six years. Slowly seeing school closures, many most of whom are predominantly black schools, if we’re being really honest about it. So over time, those decisions that are assumed to be because of financial need impact students in terms of their options for schools, the activities that may be available within their schools, the content and courses that are available to them at their schools, and class sizes, as well.
Uyiosa: Why are kids being used as collateral? I asked this question because Texas is really weird. Young people don’t have decision making power, but they’re literally the center, a bean bag, for most issues across the state.
Cassandra: Historically Texas has used public schools in order to push things along. I mean, we could go back to the last session that gutted public education funding, which is 2011. People were saying at that time, “Students need higher quality teachers,” “They need better options for schools,” “Smaller schools are better.” “Our schools are failing our kids repeatedly, what else are we gonna do?” At the state level, those conversations in the House and the Senate were often centered around students as well. “We have a moral responsibility to take care of our kids.”
The thing that I settled on after working in session and seeing a lot of this stuff – and being in a lot of the rooms where people are having conversations and say one thing but do another –is that children are the thing that everyone thinks people agree on, in terms of “not having independent ability to make decisions for themselves, and therefore we have to make it for them.”
It’s easy to center laws and horrible legislation around kids because it also makes people feel morally upright. If you can make it say that it’s about children, you can ignore all of the other things that you were doing, that are not about children. Like not fixing a power grid, where children are living in their houses in winter and ice storms, right? Or not attending to infrastructure across the state. Or all of the other things that impact families as a whole where children are living. It makes it possible for there to be a shiny object over here so other decisions can be made in quiet on the other side.
Uyiosa: Let’s back up. Do takeovers even work? It feels like HISD could end up like Louisiana school districts…
Cassandra: In my personal opinion, I do not think that they work. I think it is putting a bandaid on a very large structural problem across the state, meaning our funding model is antiquated. It does not reach the communities it needs to reach to make sure we have quality school options for everyone that are free. A board of managers in one particular school district does not change that. They can only make decisions with the money that they have. And what they have is not enough. And it also creates, I believe, a clear chasm between communities and school districts.
So if I’m a parent that has a student at Wheatley, where my child’s test scores are being blamed on this kind of closure, where lots of people, including district staff, would have in many ways preferred [the school] to be closed, than for a takeover… I am not looking at that board of managers as a partner in my child’s education in any way.
It just wouldn’t make sense to me and many folks who live in the district, work in the district, have worked in the district, like me. [We] would not assume that [a] board of managers has the best belief in Black children in this district. We also have seen a couple of districts come out of takeover. The students have not fared significantly better under takeovers at all.
And I’m talking about Beaumont ISD and El Paso ISD. Beaumont ISD, even under takeover, had some of the worst discipline data in the state. So when we’re really talking about student health and ability to gain traction academically, they have not proven that takeover does that.
Uyiosa: Shift Press helps young people shift power. What are some possible actions young people can take on this issue?
Cassandra: One thing that we need is a student-led counter narrative to what happens in public schools, both positive things and places where public schools can grow. One of the reasons I love Shift Press is it centers that. I love Shift Press. The stories of what’s impacting students comes directly from students, without a filter. That’s what we need.
Because without that, we have what we talked about before, [adults] centering student decisions on this very thin moral rope that makes people feel very confident in their decision making. But you haven’t talked to a student. You don’t know what it’s like for them to sit in their classrooms. You don’t know the things that they currently need or want. You don’t even know the beautiful things that are happening in the public schools. Many students are having quality educational experiences in our public schools, even in schools that you feel are failing. And those stories aren’t being shared.
I was an organizer in public education for a long time, and I believe in the collective power of people. I believe the students should be looking into how to organize as student groups. And organizing is only as strong as the reaction that’s generated from a target. And that means those actions have to cause a reaction from the target. That could be not engaging in the things that create ratings for schools: testing, attendance, etc. It can be using student student groups like student council to create demands of the adults that are in the schools, and more importantly, the district. I think we don’t realize how bureaucratic these systems are. Sometimes our school principals are not capable of making the decisions that would be best for students. They have to get cover. They need a board and a district that is willing to make bold decisions in this Morath-run education space. Sometimes that means they need a collective power group and I think that can be students.