Cheryl Hensley, a librarian in Houston, was excited for the start of school. A veteran of four decades in the city’s public school system, she had stocked her library at Lockhart Elementary, a mostly Black school, with $40,000 in new books, and won a statewide award for her work.
Then, late last month, Ms. Hensley, 62, was told she was no longer needed: The school’s library would be one of dozens turned into multipurpose computer rooms and used, in part, for discipline.
The decision to fire librarians and effectively close libraries in some of the city’s poorest schools has been the most contentious yet made by a new set of Houston public school leaders who were imposed on the district and its 187,000 mostly Black and Hispanic students this year by the administration of Gov. Greg Abbott.
The state of Texas this spring took over the Houston Independent School District, one of the nation’s largest school systems, and replaced its elected school board and the superintendent. The move had been years in the making, following chronic poor performance at some schools, past allegations of misconduct by school trustees and changes in state law — backed by a moderate Black Democrat from Houston — that made it easier for the state to take over school districts.
Since then, the new superintendent — a former Army Ranger, State Department diplomat and founder of a charter school network who has no official certification for the Houston job — has moved swiftly to adopt a new plan for educating the district’s children, focusing on rapidly improving reading and math scores in dozens of elementary and middle schools.
“The future is here, and we’re behind,” the superintendent, Mike Miles, said at a community meeting this month, describing persistent achievement gaps between Houston students and others around the state, and between the district’s Black and Hispanic students and their white classmates. “It means we have to do bold things now.”
State takeovers of troubled local school systems — a common occurrence around the country — have a mixed record of success, said Beth Schueler, a professor at the University of Virginia School of Education who has studied them. Those that succeeded were generally carried out in districts that were already among the nation’s lowest performing, she said, and on average they have had a neutral to negative effect.
“This is one of the largest takeovers we’ve had,” she said of Houston, and could provide a pathway for others to follow, or to avoid.
As the takeover began this year, many parents and teachers in Houston, a strongly Democratic city, complained about the loss of input into their schools, and worried that the ultimate goal of state Republican leaders was to undermine support for public education and drive Houston parents to charter or private schools.
But others, including parents and several of the replaced board members, said the district had not done enough to educate students in its struggling schools and urged patience with the new leadership.
The takeover started in the spring, as Mr. Abbott, a Republican and charter school supporter, was crisscrossing Texas to promote the use of state money for private school vouchers. The governor said his push for “parental empowerment” was separate from the Houston takeover, which he has called for since at least 2019. The Texas education commissioner, Mike Morath, has said the takeover was necessary to quickly address needed changes at the poorest-performing schools, despite improvements made even before the takeover. The district last year earned a “B” grade from the state.
With the first day of school approaching on Aug. 28, critics of the takeover have grown louder. This month, more than 200 people gathered in protest outside the district’s headquarters. “Houston Occupied School District,” read one sign. “Even prisons have libraries,” read another.
“It doesn’t feel right,” said Jessica Campos, 41, a parent at Pugh Elementary, a Spanish dual-language school slated for immediate changes. “I lose sleep over this. It’s a serious thing. These are our children and we’re not having a say in our children’s education, and that is not OK.”
The new state-run administration said it hoped to create a “new education system” in elementary and middle schools that feed into poor-performing high schools. The new approach includes a focus on reading and math, paying teachers more when their students score higher on standardized tests and shifting time-consuming tasks, such as making copies or grading work or writing lesson plans, from teachers to other staff members. Schools will also hire community members to teach elective courses like photography and spin classes.
Under the plan, libraries in some schools would become “team rooms,” which may be a bit of a misnomer, a department spokesman acknowledged: Though some students could work in teams, those sent there for disrupting class would be expected to spend their time at individual desks, watching their classes on laptops.
Mr. Miles has said that given limited space and resources, the decision was a trade-off and that students in schools where libraries have been converted into team rooms would still be able to borrow books before or after school.
Still, Sylvester Turner, Houston’s mayor, said the effort risked creating two systems.
“He’s gone too far, and he’s dismantling the largest educational district in the state of Texas,” Mr. Turner said of Mr. Miles during a City Council hearing last month. “You cannot have a situation where you are closing libraries for some schools in certain neighborhoods, and there are other neighborhoods where there are libraries, fully equipped. What the hell are you doing?”
The political tensions come at a particularly raw moment in Texas as the Republican-dominated Legislature tries to constrain Democratic-led cities on a variety of fronts, limiting local power to create city-specific ordinances, curtailing efforts at criminal justice reform and, in Austin, dispatching state troopers to patrol streets.
The takeover also coincided with a national conservative movement to change the direction of public schools, promoting candidates to run for local school boards and pressing for limits on the teaching of race and gender, and the types of books held in school libraries.
That backdrop has convinced some parents and educators in Houston that the takeover is politically motivated.
The local school board has been firmly in Democratic control. But with the takeover, its members no longer have any power, replaced by a board of managers appointed by the Texas Education Agency. In one case, a school board member was replaced by the losing candidate in the last election.
“It’s devastating,” said that replaced member, Elizabeth Santos. “They tried to defeat me and failed. Then Greg Abbott and Mike Morath put her in.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas said the takeover disenfranchised voters of color who elected the former school board and has asked for a Justice Department investigation.
But several other board members who were replaced offered support for Mr. Miles and said he should be given a chance to succeed. “We believe that no one chooses to sit at that dais who doesn’t have the best intentions for students in their heart,” four board members wrote in The Houston Chronicle.
Tish Ochoa, who serves as a parent representative on an advisory committee for the district, said she liked aspects of the new approach — including cutting staff and costs at the district’s central office in order to spend more money on low-performing schools — but said the district needed to do a better job communicating and listening.
“I am not pro turning libraries into discipline centers,” Ms. Ochoa said. “I am pro a superintendent who is honest about our problems. The bottom line is, in some of these schools, kids can’t read.”
The plan will first focus on 28 elementary and middle schools that feed into underperforming high schools, including Wheatley High School, whose poor scores allowed the Texas Education Agency, under state law, to take over the Houston district. More than 50 other schools have also opted into aspects of Mr. Miles’s plan.
Mr. Miles, who created and ran the Third Future Schools charter school network, had previously been the superintendent of schools in Dallas, where he tried some of the same approaches. David DeMatthews, a University of Texas at Austin professor in the College of Education, said the schools there did not show improvement by national measures, and teacher turnover increased sharply. More recently, Mr. Miles’s company has pointed to higher scores in smaller Texas school districts that partnered with Third Future Schools.
During a series of presentations to sometimes-hostile parents over the summer, Mr. Miles spoke of preparing students for jobs in a world where technology is rapidly evolving. He made repeated reference to artificial intelligence.
At a predominantly Black middle school in South Houston this month, he heard from Ms. Hensley, the librarian who had just learned she was fired. She told him that her work involved computer literacy and creating community, as well as lending books. Many in the room applauded.
“Everything is good,” Mr. Miles said, shrugging. “Everything is important,” he said. “It’s not that I don’t like libraries. We’re not trying to get rid of all the libraries. We have to prioritize resources.”