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POSTER CHILD: Low test scores at Wheatley High in Houston are being used by state of Texas to justify the takeover of the giant Houston Independent School District. Think Little Rock, where the state remains in control of Arkansas’s largest district because of low scores in a handful of high-poverty schools.

Good news for public school supporters from Texas, where a Houston judge, Catherine Mauzy, has blocked the state of Texas from indefinitely taking over the giant Houston Independent School District, primarily on account of persistent low scores in one high-poverty high school.

Sound familiar? Does it sound even more familiar if you know that the director of state education in Texas holds no educational qualifications for the job?

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Arkansas’s largest school district likewise faces unending state control at the hands of a failing Education Department headed by a former Republican senator for whom the law had to be changed to allow him to hold the job. State law at the time of the takeover said Little Rock would get local governance back in five years. That five years expires in two weeks and we have only a hazy prospect of an election almost a year from now, with an expanded school board jury-rigged by the state in such a way as to prevent the wrong sorts of people  (poor and minority) from exerting undue influence on the majority black and poor school district. The school board also will be stripped of many powers: Choosing its superintendent, going to court, negotiating with a teachers organization or anything else Madame Zook and Co. of the state Board of Education might like to tinker with, including such recent examples as school names and adding bureaucracy to a small high school.

Texas contends, as does Arkansas, that state law gives the state essentially unlimited power to do as it wishes with a school district so long as even one school fails to meet an arbitrary cut score on a standardized test demonstrably unfair to poor and minority children and thus unfair to schools uniformly populated by such students.

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In Texas, Houston school lawyers said the state education boss had inaccurately interpreted state law and skipped procedural steps to get the results he wanted. Look for an argument like this to be made soon in Little Rock, where a lawsuit challenging state control of Little Rock is expected soon.

“They don’t get to ignore the law and take over the district just because they think [the Texas Education Agency] could do a better job,” said lawyer David Campbell.

 

In an especially tense moment, his colleague Kevin O’Hanlon cross-examined Jeff Cottrill, the TEA’s deputy commissioner of governance and accountability, on the technicalities of state law on district takeovers — as the state’s lawyer Emily Ardolino repeatedly objected to his line of questioning and was consistently overruled.

This judge is sympathetic to Houston. Note:

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Mauzy hinted at her decision just before she stood to leave the courtroom Tuesday afternoon.

 

“Democracy is not always pretty,” she said. “But I am convinced it’s the best system we have. If we applied some of [the state’s arguments] to the Texas Legislature, I don’t know where we’d be.”

Substitute Arkansas in that sentence as well. And we know where we’d be.