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Eight Months After Harvey, People of Houston Say No To Charter Schools

Last week, the people of Houston won a partial victory in the fight to save Black and Brown schools from post-Harvey privatizers. Two Houston socialists discuss the recent fight against the charter schools strategies for fighting the underfunding of public education.

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March to state capitol in Austin, Texas to a rally for Texas public schools (Feb 23, 2013, AP Photo / Eric Gay)

Texas has a long history of prioritizing profits over the interests of students in budgeting and education laws, and the fallout has just come to a head in the Houston Independent School District (HISD). As of February, ten schools that historically serve Black and Brown students have been designated “underperforming” for the fifth consecutive year, and under Texas’ 2015 House Bill 1842 they are now subject to closure or partnership. The schools must either close and then reopen with an entirely different staff or “partner” with a nonprofit, higher education institution, charter school network, or government entity. This is the continuation of a coordinated effort at state and local levels to privatize our public resources and allow private interests to profit from the taxes allocated for students, teachers, and schools. As of today, parents and students are still wondering what kind of public schools they will be attending and what quality of resources the schools will receive, and teachers, mainly women of color, are not sure they will have a job to return to.

On April 24th, a public meeting was held during which the school board was expected to vote whether to partner the schools with the Energized For STEM group. In preparation for the meeting, HISD removed over 100 chairs to discourage community participation, turned off the air conditioning in an attempt to drive out participants, and left parents waiting two hours to give their comments and concerns. During the public commentary portion of the meeting, one speaker went over her allocated sixty seconds, and the school board president ordered to room to be cleared and immediately called the police in. Flabbergasted attendants refused to leave the room as about thirty police entered the meeting, clearly prepared for the operation. Three arrests took place, two with misdemeanor charges which were later dropped after public pressure.

One of the women arrested was Houston BLM organizer Kandice Webber, and another was Amele Goedecke, who needed medical attention due to an existing injury aggravated by police assault. Both were kept in police custody overnight and were released the following day. HISD issued a public statement in which they blame “disruptive” audience members for the clearing of the room, while referring to the assaults and arrests of parents and community organizers as “scuffles” in which they focus on the claim that “an HISD police officer sustained minor injuries.”

The callous treatment by HISD and by the Houston Police Department (HPD) further shows the disregard that these officials have for the members of the community whom they have been elected to represent. Local organizers are demanding the resignation of the HISD president due to her part in Tuesday’s events.

After the arrests, the meeting was adjourned without a vote on the proposed partnering. The following day, HISD announced that the vote would not be held even though, by law, a plan for the future of the schools has to be approved and submitted by April 30 to the State legislature.

This represents a massive victory, albeit a temporary one. Pressure from large sections of the affected population opposing the measure had forced the HISD board to temporally recant, showing that the decision to partner all ten affected schools with charter schools is not unavoidable even though, for the HISD, the profit expected from partnership takes precedence over the lives of parents and students.

Charter schools differ from traditional public schools in that they are financed by public tax dollars but are privately operated. They are controlled by a privately appointed board, with little to no transparency to the state or the parents of students, making them rife with opportunity for profit through fraud and neglect. It is no surprise, therefore, that they are supported by billionaires and the politicians they fund. Partnering with a charter school involves relegating a large percentage of children — especially those with disabilities and those from immigrant families and families of color — to profit-making entities.

The long history of underfunding Texas public education

The Texas State government has been blatantly neglecting public education system for decades. School districts such as HISD depend on local property tax dollars as a primary source of funding — which inevitably leads to the underfunding of schools in working-class areas. In the case of San Antonio ISD v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court decided that the class-based segregation of schools resulting from Texas’s property-based taxation system did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause because: “education is not a constitutional right.” This cemented the legality of the practice of underfunding schools that serve working-class students.

Matters worsened in 2011 when Governor Rick Perry approved cuts of $5.4 billion from Texas’s public schools, citing misgivings about raising taxes despite an average statewide increase in enrollment of 83,000 students every year between 2008 and 2012. These cuts to school funding eliminated more than 10,000 teaching positions in the post-2011 budget. Teachers reported a loss of one-on-one time with students, remediation, planning periods, elective courses and off-site learning opportunities for students such as field trips. Funding for bilingual education fell by 40 percent, and funding for programs aimed at keeping elementary school students from falling behind dropped 21 percent. Obviously, these decreases disproportionally affect working-class students, who are more likely to be bilingual or non-English speaking and to have working family members who cannot provide the same at-home learning opportunities as those in upper-class families.

This January, HISD announced a projected $115 million budget shortfall for the following school year. This is due to both the effect of the “recapture” system adopted in May of 2017 and falling property values in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Damaged properties are devalued, and as long as the taxation rate remains constant, something expected, their owners pay overall less tax. The situation could be easily solved with oil money: that the State of Texas is extremely oil-rich, but has one of the lowest taxation rates on oil of any state. But instead of raising these taxes to fund underfunded schools, it maintains property based taxation and shuffles around money across school districts. “Recapture” requires the HISD to send a portion of local property taxes to the state because the city is considered property-wealthy. Although over 75 percent of students are “economically disadvantaged,” HISD is considered wealthy because the wealth concentrated in the businesses and upper-class neighborhoods in Houston drive up the average income to levels above the “wealth per student” limit set by the Texas legislature. This is the reality of a property-based taxation system; urban areas will always be considered “property-wealthy” despite the low median income of its residents. Harvey disproportionately affected working-class neighborhoods and areas with lower property values — which were located in floodplains — as opposed to areas with high property values. Environmental catastrophes intensify the income inequality resulting from a property-based taxation system, disproportionately affecting those in the lower/working class.

Charter schools: the end of the road of public education neglect

A clear and predictable path has been followed by our educational system since the 1970s. Texas’s funding system and funding cuts disproportionately affect disadvantaged students and lead to poor scores in state-mandated testing, predictably pinning the label of “chronically underperforming” on a school. The state has manipulated the creation of a “problem” that it now attempts to address by privatization. The government is gambling with our tax dollars, and the stakes are future generations of students.

For a possible glimpse into Houston’s post-Harvey future, we can look at the effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In the aftermath of Katrina, New Orleans lost almost its entire public school system when 107 of the city’s 126 schools were given to the Louisiana Recovery School District, a two-year-old district that, before Katrina, oversaw only five schools. The schools were promptly charterized, and the Louisiana Recovery School District immediately laid off 3,000 staff members and 4,000 teachers, most of which were People of Color and others who had been displaced by the storm, and replaced them with mostly white teachers not native to New Orleans. This had incalculable effects on the community. Students were forced to travel longer distances to get to school, the teacher turnover rate soared, funding to special education and ESL programs dropped, and schools began to look more like prisons than places for education. Despite being acclaimed as a successful experiment due to the rise in graduation rate and standardized test scores, students in the Louisiana Recovery School District actually performed worse in reading and math than their public school counterparts (after accounting for race, ethnicity, and poverty). Despite being heralded by capitalists as a national model for education, the charterization of New Orleans public schools has spelled disaster for its communities and the education of its students.

Sadly, one person who believes New Orleans’ charter district should be a national model is the head of the Texas Education Agency, Mike Morath, ultimately responsible for public education in Texas. Morath has outspokenly praised New Orleans as offering “tremendous educational opportunities” to its students. Morath already attempted to charter the entirety of Dallas Independent School District in 2014 while sitting on its board of directors. His appointment to the TEA in 2015 was decried by the largest teachers association in Texas, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, stating it “sends another signal that [Governor] Abbott is very interested in the agenda of the education reform and the pro-privatization crowd.” Morath has already stated that Texas has no plans of delaying state-mandated testing following Hurricane Harvey, signaling that the state will continue rigorous testing of children in order to justify privatizing control over schools instead of treating the students as human beings affected by a catastrophic natural disaster. This is a future Houston and its students cannot afford. Working class families in Houston, who depend on the TEA for the future of their children’s educations, are faced with grim prospects.

Demands and Solutions

Local organizations are directing demands for solutions at the HISD. Should the school board have the political will to pursue it, the HISD has grounds for a refusal to abide by SB 1842 and could instead sue the Texas Education Agency (TEA) — the state education authority — for racial discrimination. Another possible option considered by activists that would avoid TEA takeover is the use of SB 1842 to permit the schools to partner with the city of Houston, a government entity, instead of a charter school. This would surrender the board’s authority to the city, giving the city authority over operations on campuses and potentially preventing privatization. Though Houston mayor Sylvester Turner (D) previously stated he did not want to get involved with the failing schools, following the board meeting he endorsed the decision not to vote on the partnership proposal by the April 30 deadline and to instead ask the state for an extension. While this may seem like a progressive move, Turner’s stated plans include “working in collaboration with the business community to support students and improve low-performing schools,” and using “no city resources.” Houston’s population must remain alert, as the future actions of Turner and the state government remain unclear.

As socialists, we must put forward demands for a well-funded and democratically-controlled public educational system, funded by increasing taxes on the rich and big business. The tax breaks on Texan oil and natural gas companies have to go. Working-class children’s futures should not depend on the gambling of capitalists, who hypocritically send their children to the best private schools in the area even as they claim charter schools are a giant step forward for education. It is our mission to restore and increase funding to our already underfunded public schools. We cannot allow our children to be left in the undertow of a system even as it is formally normalized for them. The teachers mobilizations around the country show the way forward. Suing the TEA or putting the schools under city control would put the matter on the hands of the state, which belongs to the same capitalist system. Only popular mobilization can make them cut into capitalist profits. We demand no partnerships, no charters, no closures, and no TEA takeover of the underfunded Houston public schools.

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