“Houston, We Have an Enormous Opportunity.” What Happens When Our North Star and Our Lone Star Become Understood Again to Be One and the Same

Weekend’s greetings, CharterFolk.

I’m going to try something a little different over the next week. Rather than one long column connecting trends across many geographies, I’m going to try breaking things up into posts focusing on different places one at a time.

We’ll see how it goes.

Before I turn to that, let me first thank Malka, Nella, Myrialis, Elsie and Aide for their awesome Contributor Column this week.

I greatly appreciate all of you demonstrating that, indeed, great things happen when CharterFolk come together, including the foundation of great new organizations like LEAL, and the crafting of great Contributor Columns warranting the attention of CharterFolk far and wide. In fact, the idea that great things happen when CharterFolk come together was one of the founding notions behind the creation of CharterFolk in the first place!

Should any readers wish to emulate Malka and/or this entire group of authors by publishing either an individual or a collective post here at CharterFolk, please reach out to Kerry at Kerry@charterfolk.org or myself at Jed@charterfolk.org.

Nothing would make us happier than helping even more great things happen when CharterFolk come together.

Let’s get on to today’s post.

“Houston, We Have an Enormous Opportunity.” What Happens When Our North Star and Our Lone Star Become Understood Again to Be One and the Same

I’m sure by now many of you have seen the news coming out of Houston.

It’s a place I’ve been writing about frequently, including during my gut-check post over Thanksgiving.

After having been cleared in January by the state’s supreme court to do so …

… the Texas Education Agency has finally moved forward with its takeover of Houston ISD. The article at the 74 does a good job summarizing some of the latest specifics.

Sadly …

.. ironically …

… but oh so predictably …

… those that purport themselves to be on the side of kids and justice are rallying in defense of Houston ISD.

As though there is some historical legacy of the school district, or some current achievement, that deserves such defense.

When any modicum of inquiry reveals exactly the opposite.

They are defending the same Houston ISD that fought against integration efforts as forcefully as any school district in the United States …

… a school district whose historical housing redlines …

… independent research shows …

… became the very lines upon which school attendance boundaries were drawn …

… making the district one of the biggest de jure perpetuators of race and class separation in modern day Houston …

… whose legacy includes achievement gaps as pronounced as any we see in the United States.

And as though previous historical educational redlines weren’t bad enough, beginning in 1975 …

… the district embarked upon a multi-decade effort to open a large number of magnets, many of which evolved over time to make use of the selective admissions that are still in place today …

… and that are clearly understood to screen out kids by race.

It was the next generation’s form of educational redlining.

It’s become, tragically, ours as well.

Because just this past year, not only did the district decide to do nothing to correct the historical redlining of its existing magnet programs, it in fact decided to make even more.

And just a couple months ago, the HISD superintendent proudly proclaimed …

… they would make even more in 2024-25.

House said HISD plans to add another seven new magnet programs for the 2024-25 school year, a batch that could include more elementary schools.

What magnifies the perniciousness of this generation’s form of educational redlining is that it is accompanied by budgeting practices that further exacerbate unfairness, with the district siphoning money away from the very kids who are being denied admission at the schools to which their resources are being redirected.

CharterFolk, this is important.

It’s not that money follows the kid to the magnet.

It’s that on top of the per pupil money that would understandably follow a student to his or her new school of enrollment, the district takes even more from other students such that the amount invested in those other students’ educations on a per pupil basis actually drops.

All while creating a quality of program at the magnets that, by design, surpasses what is even aspired toward in the other schools that the screened out kids end up being forced to attend.

It’s, in effect, making this generation’s red lines even brighter and bolder.

But it’s become such an accepted practice that the district can be matter-of-fact about its decision to commit a level of per pupil funding to the new magnets that will significantly exceed the per pupil funding it will direct to its other schools.

As the Chronicle reported in their article from June of 2022:

Most of the schools would receive an additional $20 per student, and the salary for a teacher or magnet coordinator would be $62,700 for roughly every 250 students, but this number varies depending on the school.

And when implemented across hundreds of programs over decades, the scope of subsidies provided to magnet schools can put the finances of the entire district at risk during times of budget crisis …

… though invariably, the district will do whatever it needs to do in order to keep additional funds flowing to schools serving the more advantaged …

… while schools serving other students grow ever more under-resourced over time.

Today when you go to the district’s website …

… you find the number of high school magnets using selective admissions scrolls to literally 25 pages.

I cut and paste below from the top of the list to give you a flavor.

As followers of the state takeover saga in Houston know, Wheatley High, a school that has historically served high percentages of low-income students in Houston’s 5th Ward and has been identified as having missed minimum academic performance standards for seven years in a row, has been a center of attention and controversy.

In recent days, school board members and others have begun telling people to stop saying the school is failing.

But some of the school’s students, as the above article attests, aren’t so convinced.

As LaTroya Jackson, a freshman, makes her way through the hallways, she hears her principal’s voice over the loudspeaker offer words of encouragement to students to keep moving forward and try their best, despite what they might be hearing about their school. 

But she still hears from other students throughout the district that HISD is at risk for state intervention. She’s told Wheatley is to blame.

“I kind of agree with them,” Jackson said. “So I mean, you can’t really get upset or anything when they say these things, because it’s true.”

And here’s the kicker:

The freshman ultimately decided to go to Wheatley for its early career program that would allow her to graduate high school with an associate’s degree. She then may have to go to college for only two years to earn a bachelor’s, saving her time and tuition, she said.

Wheatley certainly wasn’t Jackson’s top choice. She put in a school choice application listing DeBakey High School as one of her top choices but ultimately didn’t get a spot at any of her picks. 

You got that, CharterFolk?

DeBakey was the school that LaTroya wanted to attend.

For those of you keeping score, you find it on page 5 of the district’s list of magnets …

… where it is shown that applicants must score at least an 80 on the application matrix, one of the most selective admissions criteria in the district.

Where did she end up instead.?

At Wheatley, where no selective admissions are used, and where, apparently, she was able to get in.

Another student at the school portrayed in the Chronicle article, Samuel Ollison, reported that, if Wheatley closes, he would look to attend either Austin High School or Jack Yates.

Austin, as you will remember, is at the very top of the list of selective admissions magnets and requires …

… the same matrix score that excluded LaTroya from DeBakey.

Perhaps, Samuel can achieve a score that LaTroya could not. Otherwise, at the very bottom of the 25-page list of magnets, you find Yates High School, and if Samuel can score a 50, there are some magnets there he could attend.

If not, well then, there’s always the base program at Yates which uses no selective admissions.

The base program is called the “IB Diploma Programme.” It’s the one they advertise on the front of the school’s website.

It has a D ranking from the state …

… and serves the vast number of students on the campus.

That’s the same Jack Yates, by the way, where the district announced in December a sudden mid-year leadership change.

But when staff brought the matter to the board a few weeks later …

… things got mysteriously complicated. So now she’s been reinstated …

… though no one knows to this day what problems the district saw in her leadership.

Jack Yates is also, by the way …

… the same high school that George Floyd attended, a story that was profiled …

… in a remarkable series of articles at the Washington Post highlighting the many opportunities that he was segregated out from during his lifetime.

For decades Yates had struggled in its central mission to educate students, a victim of a U.S. educational system that concentrates the poorest, highest-need children together, setting them up for failure.

By the time Floyd and his friends arrived in 1989, the city’s schools had been officially desegregated, but Yates was as segregated as ever, with a high concentration of students with significant needs and what became …

… (in a manner eerily reminiscent of the leadership drama happening at the school just a few weeks back) …

an endless stream of teachers and administrators cycling through.

Among those portrayed in the article was one of Jack Yates’s other most famous graduates, NFL great Dexter Manley, who famously broke down in tears testifying in front of Congress about the fact that he didn’t learn to read until he reached his 30’s.

The tragedy of public education’s failure in places like Yeats and Wheatley and many other schools in Houston, held in place by a stasis that has built up over decades by a wide range of status-quo-maintaining interests, remains one of the great societal challenges of our time.

And perhaps the irony of ironies is that the one kind of public school that is serving disproportionately high percentages of historically underserved students …

… and generating unprecedentedly strong levels of academic achievement with those students …

… without drawing new educational redlines or engaging in blatantly unfair budgeting practices in the process … is charter schools.

Some of the best charter schools in the nation are located in Houston, whether they be charter schools run by large organizations like KIPP, Yes Prep, and Harmony

… or by smaller organizations like Accelerated Interdisciplinary, STEP, and Ser-Niños.

And yet, charter schools are singled out for the most visceral excoriation from those who purport themselves to serve the interests of kids and justice.

CharterFolk, we find ourselves at a moment of enormous opportunity.

It’s an opportunity to address what has become one of our greatest problems.

The fact that we’re not as locked in as we need to be on a shared North Star toward which we can aspire and advocate.

Some state interventions in other contexts have ended up generating historic levels of progress.

Others have not.

And some of the things the ed reform world has advocated for have only generated mixed results, as the record of prominent Houstonians clearly shows.

But if we take on this new chapter in a manner reflecting all that we have learned, with a greater sense of imagination and a wiser calibration on our greatest points of leverage, we stand the potential to regain our bearings on where we’re headed.

Which is toward a new paradigm of public schooling where we don’t choose between equity and excellence but make progress on both simultaneously:

  • Radically increasing the supply of great schools that are available to absolutely all students so that no students anywhere are turned away from programs they want to attend, with high quality charter schools, of course, leading the way;
  • While erasing redlines and dismantling unfair systems of resourcing schools so that the LaTroyas and Samuels of the world stand at the front, not the back, of the push toward better educational opportunity.

A North Star.

Not a new one, actually. One that’s always been.

But one that has been obscured from us of late by a cloudy night that is now beginning to clear.

Revealing that our Lone Star and our North Star and indeed all the stars by which we navigate in every state are becoming understood again to be what they’ve always been:

One and the same.