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ACLU wants Justice Department to stop Texas from taking control of Houston school district

April 3, 2023
A complaint filed by the civil rights group says the Texas Education Agency's plan to replace Houston's school board and superintendent would violate the Voting Rights Act.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice alleging that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) is violating the Voting Rights Act by replacing the Houston school district's elected board.

The Houston Chronicle reports that the ACLU wants the Justice Department to investigate and "take any other action necessary" to prevent TEA Commissioner Mike Morath from appointing a board of managers to govern the Houston school system.

The ACLU contends that the impending takeover is an "undemocratic and unlawful" action that would dilute the voting power of the majority Black and brown community in the school district.

"The TEA's actions raise serious concerns that it is intentionally discriminating against Houston voters of color and denying or abridging their existing right to vote for HISD trustees," the letter states.

The ACLU complaint is the latest development in a four-year legal battle over control of the Houston district. The state first tried to take over the district in 2019 in response to low academic achievement at Wheatley High School and alleged school board misconduct, but the district blocked the takeover with a lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the Texas Supreme Court vacated an injunction, paving the way for the TEA to move forward and assume control of the district.

In his announcement earlier this month, Morath said the state takeover was required under Texas law because Wheatley earned five consecutive failing scores on the state's accountability system and a conservator had been stationed at the district for more than two consecutive years.

In its complaint, the ACLU argues that Morath is not required to take over the district. The civil rights group says that Morath's "flawed" justifications for intervening in the district are "red herrings based on stale data," according to the complaint. Wheatley's rating improved to an acceptable grade and the entire district earned a B for the most recent school year.

"The TEA's true intent is to remove the power of Houston voters of color, who pose a threat to the state's current political power structure and the statewide voters' preferred policies," the letter states. "The TEA's appointed board of managers will effectively rubber stamp the statewide Anglo voters' preferred educational policies."

If the Justice Department decides to go through with an investigation, it could ask the TEA to delay its timeline, or go through the courts for an injunction, said Emily Berman, an associate professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center.      

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