‘We Can’t Stay Where We Are’: The Democrat Behind the Houston Schools Takeover

Longtime Texas Rep. Harold Dutton on why he wrote — and stands behind — the law that required the state to intervene to turn the district around.

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In the weeks since the Texas Education Agency took over the Houston Independent School District, many have characterized the move as an attack by a right-wing governor against public education in a majority-Democratic city. And — coming hard on the heels of this year’s ideologically fractious Texas legislative session — to many, that narrative isn’t a hard sell.

As predicted four years ago by the state’s ed insiders, Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s appointed superintendent — former Dallas Independent School District chief Mike Miles — has revealed plans involving turnaround strategies that have worked elsewhere in the state. These include using big pay hikes to restaff the district’s most challenged schools with top talent and upgrading the skills of the principals they report to. It’s exactly what one side wanted and the other feared.  

Overshadowed by the political scrum, though, are the roots of the 2015 law that requires Morath to intervene when a district repeatedly fails to address chronically underperforming schools. The legislation, House Bill 1842, was, in fact, written by Harold Dutton Jr., a Black Democrat who for almost 30 years has represented a district that is home to several schools that he and others say Houston has neglected for years.

Dutton is a graduate of one of the schools, Phillis Wheatley High School, named for an enslaved woman who became the first published African American poet. Opened in 1927, the school at the time was one of the largest Black high schools in the country, in part because Houston’s white civic leadership was willing to lavish it with resources in an effort to prove that racially separate schools could be equal — then the law of the land.

As he recounts in this new 74 Interview, Dutton grew up a proud product of this legacy, only to realize — as a lawmaker frustrated with the stalemates that plague education policy — that his beloved Wheatley was failing his constituents’ children. Every year since 1930, his alma mater has chosen a high-achieving student — typically a senior — to serve as that year’s Miss Wheatley. In 2000, Dutton was trying to find all these distinguished alums so he could invite them to an event when he had the heartbreaking epiphany that fueled his advocacy.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: What prompted you to author House Bill 1842?

Harold Dutton Jr.: When I got to the legislature, one of the things I wanted to do was be on the public education committee. I had always thought of Houston as a sort of education bastion, particularly in terms of Wheatley High School, which I attended and graduated from. I just wanted to make sure they were all right. 

Along about the year 2000, I sponsored an event for my high school for its 75th anniversary called the Purple and White Gala to recognize and honor all of the Miss Wheatlies that had come through at that time. I got all their pictures and their bios. I went around trying to find them and then communicate with them.

What I noticed was that the early Miss Wheatleys all had great accomplishments. The first Miss Wheatley was also the first Miss Prairie View A&M University. We had one who was an actress. There were all kinds of all kinds of professions. We even had a Miss Wheatley who had been a part of the moonshot at NASA. 

But as I put all their bios and pictures on the wall, and as I got to the late ‘80s, I could see a total decline in the education accomplishments of the Miss Wheatlies. I found one who was working at McDonald’s. That shocked me.

It was a beautiful event. But afterward, I started taking a look at all of the schools in my district. I realized there had been a huge decline in student outcomes and achievements. 

There’s another high school in my district, Kashmere High School. I found that Kashmere students never pass the standardized test because they never did well on the math portion. I called the superintendent of HISD at the time. I asked him, ‘What’s wrong with northeast Houston education? And in particular, what’s wrong with Kashmere?’ 

He told me students didn’t do well on the math portion of the test. I said, ‘I know that — but why don’t they do well?’ He said he didn’t know. I said, ‘Well, I do.’ I took a look at whether Kashmere students had the benefit of a certified math teacher. What I found was that they hadn’t had one in 20-odd years.

I went to the school board members on the west side of town and said, ‘This is crazy. Why don’t you help me do something about it?’ They said, ‘Why don’t you go and talk to your own school board member? I don’t represent [that school].’ I said, ‘No, you represent HISD — you got elected in your area. They insisted this was a problem that I had to take up with my own school board member.

In Houston, we have nine single-member districts where school board members get elected. What had happened was the school board members had become territorial, to the extent that they didn’t recognize that a problem outside their district was still a problem they needed to help resolve.

[Killeen Republican Jimmie] Don Aycock was chair of [the Texas House of Representatives Public Education Committee] at the time. He had a bill about reconstituting schools that were failing.

I went to him and said, ‘I got to figure out some way for the school board members to have skin in the game about all the schools. I need to put an amendment on your bill that says that if you have a campus in your school district that is failing, your whole school district is failing and the state could come in and take over.’

Now, some [lawmakers] asked me, ‘Why would you do that, when one school is the cause?’ I said, ‘Think about it this way: If child protective services comes to your house because one of your children is alleged to have been abused, they don’t leave the other four children. They take everybody.’ 

This — this is a form of child abuse. To the extent that we’ve had children go on and on and on in a failing school.

This wasn’t my first attempt at trying to change the situation. The first thing I did was sponsor a bill requiring HISD to be divided into four parts. Each part was going to have its own superintendent, because I thought having the superintendent closest to us would get us to where we needed to be. Well, that bill didn’t pass. 

I started researching again and came up with another bill that said we were going to create what was called an opportunity school district in Texas. It would be a school district that would take all of the low-performing schools, all the failing schools, put them in this district and the state would run it. We would fix the schools up and give them back to the district they came from. That didn’t pass. 

I kept at it. The [2015 takeover] bill passed, and so my amendment passed. Everybody was for it. The teacher groups, the NAACP, everybody. I think they were thinking like I was: No school district would let a campus fail for five consecutive school years. That just wasn’t going to happen.

But yet, in 2019, that’s what happened. Not at Kashmere, but at Wheatley. The schools in north Houston, they were all suffering. The children there were being shortchanged by the school district. 

Now, having said all that, HISD has always had its problems. I remember when Brown v. Board of Education was enacted in 1954. I was in elementary school. That Supreme Court decision said, ‘You should eliminate this by all deliberate speed.’ I don’t know if ‘all deliberate speed’ means as slow as you can, but by the time HISD implemented it, I was in college. So here we are. 

One of the things people said to me was, ‘We don’t know if it’s going to be better.’ Let me tell you something. I had a premonition one night when I was watching television, and it was all about slavery. Some of the slaves had gone into a room one night, and they were planning to escape. They went and woke this one slave up and said, ‘Come on and put your clothes on, it’s time to go.’ He said, ‘Where are we going?’ And the other slave said, ‘We’re going to freedom. While I can’t say 100% for sure that it’s going to be better, I can tell you, I’m 100% sure that we can’t stay where we are.’ 

From my perspective, this is offering a better outcome for students and families, particularly in north Houston. HISD could have done a number of things to eliminate failing schools. 

Do you think that Wheatley and Kashmere should stay open?

Absolutely. I don’t think ever we want to look at closing schools. 

Wheatley has a distinction that probably no other school in the state has. It was one of the schools that at one time in the not-too-distant past had three alumni serving in the Texas House of Representatives at the same time. It was a school where at one time we had a sitting congressman. We had a sitting county commissioner. We had a sitting state school board member. We had a sitting local school board member and we had a state representative.

All from that school alumni.

The challenges we face now in terms of getting it back? I don’t think we meet those by closing the school. I think we meet those by giving these children what they need. 

I heard one comment that offended me to no end: that these are poor children. And I said, ‘What the heck does that have to do with learning?’ Because I can tell you, we were not poor, we were po. We couldn’t afford the ‘o’ or the ‘n.’ And yet we learned.

This is the school where Barbara Jordan graduated. It’s the school where my good friend who just ended a term as president of Prairie View graduated. The former president of Brown University was a Wheatley graduate. The Jazz Crusaders all came from Wheatley. 

That’s why I’m hopeful that we’re headed to a place where these kids will get what they need in terms of the resources and we’ll move on. And all the noise we hear today will be growing pains.

Are you troubled by the current conversation about the takeover?

No. I anticipated there will be some people who didn’t understand that while I might be inclined to agree with them insofar as not wanting the state to take over, I’m more upset at failing schools. I’m more upset at denying students a future if they don’t get an education.

But I understand that there’ll be some people who will be against this. When you think about the past, whenever there was a change for the better, there was always — you can go back as far as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt — there was people complaining about it. And thinking that they should go back to Egypt.

That’s kind of what this is. There’s some people who think we need to go back.

Almost every community of any size has a Wheatley, a beacon of excellence, beloved by its community, where the names of the alums are on the tip of your tongue. Yet expectations at some point slid, as did resources and accountability.

That’s the biggest problem — the low expectations.

When I first moved to New York, I wanted to go see Reverend Ike. I can never forget, when I got there, the title of his sermon that Sunday was, ‘The only thing wrong with poor people is they ain’t got no money.’

I thought about that. What is that supposed to mean in terms of education? In terms of education, it shouldn’t mean anything. We should educate those students so that somehow or other what God put in them we get the benefit of, because we educated them.

There are too many people, particularly Black males, standing around on corners who we didn’t educate. We don’t enjoy the benefits of what God put in that person.

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