School Takeovers as the “New” Redistricting

This book first came to my attention at a community meeting in Houston on December 3rd, 2019. The event’s host, the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), convened the gathering to organize grassroots resistance against the impending state takeover of the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Addressing a packed union hall of nearly 150 parents, teachers and staff, Domingo Morel participated in the meeting over webcam, sharing insights from his book, Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. {…}

Domingo Morel, Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. Oxford University Press, 2018. 181 pp.

Review by S.U.

This book first came to my attention at a community meeting in Houston on December 3rd, 2019.  The event’s host, the Houston Federation of Teachers (HFT), convened the gathering to organize grassroots resistance against the impending state takeover of the Houston Independent School District (HISD).  Addressing a packed union hall of nearly 150 parents, teachers and staff, Domingo Morel participated in the meeting over webcam, sharing insights from his book, Takeover: Race, Education, and American Democracy. While Takeover is an academic manuscript and should be read on the terms of its genre, its research palpably reflects a deep engagement with the spirit of community meetings like the one in Houston and all over the country. He delivers a stellar indictment of state-corporate propaganda, locates assaults on public education within the logic of the criminal justice system, and restores racism to its role as the chief ideological tool for neoliberalism’s implementation in the US.  Comradely engagements aside, Morel has contributed a brilliant, nimble and concise analysis of school takeovers, and it is one that needs to be read by activists, union members, parents and students everywhere.

The urgency for a book like this is clear.  The headlines coming out of Austin and Houston are only the latest in a slow-motion nightmare underway in schools and communities across the state and country. In Houston, the Texas Education Agency seeks to eliminate the democratically elected school board of HISD, serving 200,000 students, majority Black and Brown (like its school board) and representing the largest school district in the state as well as the seventh largest in the country. In the capitol, Austin ISD’s elected school board voted in November 2019 to close four elementary schools, disproportionately serving the district’s Black and Brown communities. With racism spilling through every orifice of Texas government, its critical activists, union members, parents and students come to grips with the changing equipment of state racism and working-class immiseration.  Since 1990 the state of Texas has attempted to seize or close over a dozen of its school districts, within a wider advance of private charters and test-taking mills on the territory of public education. Understanding the various ways that state and municipal agencies are reorganizing education and undermining community control is invaluable in winning the fight for the schools we all deserve.

In the book’s first contribution, Morel argues that state takeovers can only be understood within the tug and pull between oppressed communities and state power.  In the 1960s, when Black communities were physically shut out of elected bodies, like school boards, state intervention and reorganization of school boards drew their support as a progressive measure.  Today, when these communities have found representation and in some cases control of local bodies, state takeovers have offered ruling classes an instrument from above to roll back time to a previous era.  Among the over one hundred state takeovers since 1989 nationwide, majority Black and Latino districts make up almost 85 percent of the data. Although administrators of state takeovers may appoint new school boards or at times leave them in place, their preferred method is eliminating the school board without replacement. Specifically, majority Black districts are more than eight times more likely to suffer this than their white counterparts.  In Newark, for example, Morel shows how state expropriation in 1995 disarmed a majority Black school district and eliminated its majority Black elected board. This allowed state authorities, whose base of support lay outside Newark, to impose a devastating and racist distribution of employment cuts, while expediting an unpopular private school agenda for the district.  

Teachers’ strike on Nov. 14th, 2019 in Little Rock, Arkansas against school segregation and for the return of democratic community control. Photo: Susana O’Daniel.

But if state takeovers are a weapon of reaction insofar as they disenfranchise the oppressed, they can also have unexpected consequences. During 2011 in Central Falls, Rhode Island, state intervention had the opposite effect, proving advantageous as an emergency measure for the city’s majority Latino district. The takeover precipitated the removal of the district’s majority white school board – at the time leading a brutal assault against the district’s teachers and staff – and its replacement with a school board more representative of the district’s population and its demands. State intervention in public education, moreover, sits within a broader continuum of grassroots struggles against racism and privatization – and the character of any intervention will reflect the balance of the forces involved as well as their relationship with state power. 

The book’s second contribution illuminates how takeovers became components within the wider machinery of state governments. Given that anxieties over the readiness of US schools and lagging academic achievement are hardly unique to this generation, it is outrageous that these racist dog whistles often pass as innocent justification for drastic changes in state policy. The roots of state takeovers began in the 1960s when white reaction at various levels of state power demanded tools to reverse the gains of the Civil Rights movement.  Right-wing racists targeted the political and financial pipeline then emerging between federal and city government, which had crucially brought an expanding public sector into a contact with the strongholds of the Civil Rights movement. White flight from desegregating cities destroyed the financial tax base of municipal governments, strengthening their reliance on state capitols.  While the “federal-urban axis” presented a problem for white reaction, federal grants for discretionary spending during this period continued to flow to state agencies, whose importance as political actors increased accordingly.  Their accumulating economic weight found political expression as Nixon reorganized the administration of the U.S. State, handing responsibilities once assumed by the federal apparatus to state governments. Whatever reservations the right’s ideology might have had with local government’s shrinking role in the shadow of state authority, the march of the Civil Rights movement proved far more terrifying in the conservative imagination.

The ground was now set for an assault from state government heads against black municipal gains.  Exploiting their expanded authority, the so-called “education governors” weakened and seized the stewardship of public education for its reorganization along market lines.  In this the gubernatorial assault was doubly crushing: teaching workforces were majority Black in many major cities and improving the public education system had been a central and singular platform for Black communities across the United States.  State governments in the South sounded alarmist bells about the fitness of urban schools, rehearsing old racist tropes about the unsuitability of Black communities for raising Black children. 

In this context, the road to the first state takeover law, passed in New Jersey in 1988, began in Texas. In San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez, the 1968 Supreme Court ruled – in what should be described as a reversal of Brown v. Board of Education – against the plaintiffs who “argued disparities in school funding across the district disadvantaged the lower-resourced communities in San Antonio and other cities across the state” in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause.  As all remaining challenges were redirected to state courts, “every state takeover law passed between 1980 and 2000 came from successful school litigation efforts in that state’s courts … the states that did not pass state takeover laws following court decisions were Montana, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming. In these states, the average black population is less than 1 percent.” The state’s logic and objectives couldn’t have been clearer.

One place where Morel’s book requires more discussion, though, is in the way takeovers figure in US two-party politics. Having studied Newark, featuring a pro-business alliance between Democratic Mayor Cory Booker and Republican Governor Chris Christie, Morel is far from sanguine about either party’s role in advancing grassroots school struggles. Nevertheless, Morel points out that Republicans have been the most vigorous and enthusiastic in preparing the ground for state expropriation: “[e]ighty percent of all takeover laws in the United States were passed under Republican gubernatorial administrations.” Still, the two parties of capital in the U.S. rarely refuse to collaborate with one another following the succession of either. Morel’s data, furthermore, in exposing the GOP’s record on education immediately poses a problem: why have Democrats been so slow to challenge them and in some places aided their agendas? In the 1980s, for instance, Texas Democratic Governor Mark White garnered union support with promises of higher teacher salaries but then performed the most dramatic about-face by handing the state’s blue-ribbon commission on the issue of reform to the libertarian, racist H. Ross Perot. Today, in liberal cities like Austin, school boards preparing to shutter majority non-white schools can behave like racist state governments even in the absence of state seizure. And, historically, while Morel’s discussion of the “education governors” is confined to Republican state governments, some of the most prominent were Democrats, including not only Mark White of Texas, but a young, southern Democrat in Arkansas – Bill Clinton.  

Among Texas progressives, the gerrymandered redistricting of the state’s political map every ten years remains the source of ceaseless torment and frustration. And rightly so, in a state where the legislature responsible for redrawing congressional districts is often dominated by the most odious elements of the GOP.  But its easy for explanations like these to do too much work for us – to the point where we overlook other, possibly deeper, sources for progressive weakness in the state. That the takeover of school districts might be a deep regime of redistricting and disenfranchisement beneath congressional gerrymandering is a conclusion, while not directly engaged by Morel’s research, that this review highly encourages us to consider.  First, state takeovers often do literally redraw district maps, as private operators resulting from school closures receive state recognition as independent school districts unto themselves (there are around 200 of these in Texas, representing 700 individual schools; its a mess). Second, while gerrymandering undermines the parliamentary representation of working class people, ‘deep’ redistricting of the public school system destabilizes the vulnerable core of working class life – its reproduction, its sense of coherence, and, ultimately, its political strength across all arenas of political life.  It may be that the old riddles to progressive advance in Texas will ultimately find answers in unexpected places.

This is why, hopefully, more research on past struggles and more grassroots organizing in present ones will reveal how communities can not only repel state takeover schemes, but coincide with each other to anchor transformative agendas of their own. During that same HFT meeting in December, one speaker, decrying the trashed condition of public education statewide, exclaimed “One Million, Black and Brown: March on Austin!” Toward that end, Morel finishes with a call for revitalized, democratic spaces where oppressed communities can collectively determine how they want their districts to be run. Morel carefully remarks that keeping these spaces a safe distance from electoral politics is crucial given the way its narrow arena can generate zero-sum logics among those on the same side.  Working class movements – not so different from #Red4Ed – are preparing and building these spaces today. Yet, an autonomous vehicle or ensemble of alliances, capable of conveying these spaces and winning Morel’s provisional programme – larger public spending, stronger federal pipelines to cities and expanded protections for people of color – remains tragically absent. But given the way public education performs as a key nerve center for working class life, struggles around it may very well pave the road to new heights for the labor movement in the US. 

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