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Union sues over changes in teacher evaluations prompted by Texas takeover of Houston school district

HOUSTON (AP) — Days after Texas’ largest school district began its first school year under a state takeover, a teachers union has filed a lawsuit over changes being implemented in how educators will be evaluated.

The lawsuit, filed Wednesday, came as Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath made rare public comments about the takeover of Houston’s school district since he announced it in March.

During a meeting in Austin Wednesday of the Texas State Board of Education, Morath expressed his support for the work of Mike Miles, the new superintendent he chose to run the school district. Morath said that so far “a lot of very positive changes” have taken place. Morath had been criticized by some parents and teachers for not attending public meetings in Houston earlier this year that discussed the takeover.

One of the changes being put in place is a new teacher evaluation system that will pay educators based largely on standardized test scores and their classroom performance.

In its lawsuit, filed in state district court, the Houston Federation of Teachers alleges the new system was approved without input from teachers and school committees, a violation of state law. The union is asking for a court order to temporarily stop the new teacher evaluation system.

Miles is “refusing to follow the law by shutting out the voices of teachers, parents, students and other community members and punishing educators in the name of streamlining the district,” union president Jackie Anderson said in a statement.

The union and teachers have said the new evaluation plan does not define what criteria it will use and that it will pit teachers against each other and not foster an environment of collaboration and improvement.

In a statement, the Houston school district said it can’t comment on pending litigation.

In court documents, lawyers for the school district asked that the lawsuit be dismissed because the union had failed to complete an appeals process with the Texas Education Agency before seeking court intervention. The lawyers also argued Miles did post a public notice in July seeking input from teachers and school committees for the new evaluation plan.

The state took over the school district in June, with Morath citing chronically low academic scores at one high school and allegations of misconduct by the district’s elected trustees as reasons for the action.

As the new school year began Monday, many teachers, students and parents have expressed concern and anxiety over the changes being implemented by Miles.

His most criticized change is transforming libraries at dozens of underperforming schools into “team centers” where students will get extra help and where those who misbehave will be disciplined, watching lessons on Zoom rather than disrupting their classrooms.

During Wednesday’s state board of education meeting, several board members questioned Morath about the changes at these libraries, including the removal of librarians.

“How is that good for kids?” asked Staci Childs, a board member who represents the Houston area.

Morath blamed concerns about the libraries to inaccurate media reports, saying the change to bring misbehaving students to an area where they can still get quality instruction is a “massive improvement.” He said the team centers will also be places for extra tutoring or for independent study for high-achieving students.

“All the books are on the shelf, none of the books have been removed. The libraries are there,” Morath said.

Board member Aicha Davis, who represents the Dallas area, pushed back against Morath’s comments.

“There will not be librarians. There won’t be anyone to guide the students. It’ll be a room with books in it, but it will not be a fully functioning library,” she said.

When asked by reporters earlier this week to evaluate how the first day of classes went on Monday, Miles gave the district a grade of A-minus.

“It’s just going to get better. So, every day is an improvement day,” Miles said.

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