Mike Miles, the state-appointed superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, might be the most hated person in Harris County. At last week’s school board meeting—the first since Miles was officially hired—residents crowded HISD headquarters, in northwest Houston, to oppose the state’s takeover of the school district. One speaker compared Miles, who is the son of a Black father and a Japanese mother, to a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Another described the state’s recent seizure of HISD, which serves a student population that is 62 percent Hispanic and 22 percent Black—as an “act of racial violence.” Larry McKinzie, an educator and former State Board of Education candidate, appeared to make a physical threat against Miles: “Realize this: you’re safe at forty-four-hundred West Eighteenth”—the location of the board meeting—“but you’ll have to go back [home].” Not one of the 33 attendees who gave public comments had anything good to say about their new superintendent.  

It was hard to gauge Miles’s reaction to the criticism, because he spent the entire public-comment period in a back room, watching the meeting on TV. Arrayed around his empty chair on the dais were the nine members of the new HISD board of managers, recently appointed by Texas Education Agency (TEA) commissioner Mike Morath to replace Houston’s elected school board. The first public meeting, on June 8, had been disrupted by angry hecklers. In an apparent effort to keep order, the board allowed only 35 members of the public into last week’s meeting room, which can accommodate more than 300. The remaining 100 or so attendees were relegated to an overflow room. Several attempted to force their way into the main room, only to be turned back by armed police officers. One teacher who had registered to speak at the meeting was arrested for criminal trespassing and spent the night in jail. 

“This is supposed to be a public meeting, and the public is not in here,” said state representative Jolanda Jones, a former HISD trustee who was among the few allowed into the main hall. “You’re not going to get the support of the community, including myself and others, until you meaningfully include the public.” From Mayor Sylvester Turner on down, nearly every Houston official opposes the HISD takeover. “This process has been flawed and anti-democratic from the very beginning,” Turner said in a statement earlier this month. “There has been minimal community engagement and very little transparency.” 

The state has previously ousted elected school boards in seven districts, including in El Paso ISD in 2012 after a cheating scandal and in Beaumont ISD in 2014 due to financial mismanagement. But it has never assumed control of a district as sprawling and complex as Houston’s, the largest in the state and the eighth-largest in the country. HISD serves nearly 200,000 students spread across 274 schools, has a budget of $2.3 billion, and employs more than 10,000 teachers. In 2015 Harold Dutton, an iconoclastic Democratic state representative who represents northeast Houston and is a longtime critic of HISD, amended an education bill to allow the TEA to take over any school district with a campus that fails to meet state accountability standards for five consecutive years. In 2019, after HISD’s Wheatley High School triggered that provision, the TEA announced that it would appoint a board of managers to temporarily oversee HISD, citing Wheatley’s poor performance and allegations of board misconduct. “This intervention is needed to prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students or to the public interest,” Morath said at the time. 

Houston leaders overwhelmingly opposed the takeover, citing HISD’s overall B rating from the state and strong financial position. In 2019 the district sued the state, delaying the takeover for four years. The legal battle ended in January, when the Texas Supreme Court—whose nine members are all Republicans—sided with the TEA. 

On June 1, the TEA formally seized control of HISD. Governor Greg Abbott, who appointed Morath (as well as five state Supreme Court justices), called the decision “unfortunate” but necessary. “There has been a longtime failure by HISD, and the victims of that failure are the students,” Abbott declared. HISD superintendent Millard House II, who had been on the job for two years, was replaced by Miles, a former Dallas ISD superintendent and the founder of Third Future Schools, a network of public charter schools. The elected trustees were replaced by a board of managers picked by the TEA. While racially diverse, the board members mostly live in affluent areas of Houston west of downtown, far from the schools in northeast Houston targeted by Miles’s reforms. 

Those reforms will be sweeping and immediate. For his first year, Miles will target the feeder systems of three chronically underperforming high schools: Kashmere, North Forest, and Wheatley. A total of 29 elementary, middle, and high schools—all serving low-income, predominantly minority student populations—will be reorganized according to Miles’s “New Education System,” a package of reforms he implemented at Dallas ISD and his Third Future schools. In coming years, Miles plans to expand this system to more campuses. (Miles’s tenure in Dallas was polarizing. Supporters claim he made extraordinary improvements, while critics say he alienated the community and that academic gains proved short-lived.) 

In recent interviews with local media, Miles has described the key components of the New Education System: higher teacher pay ($85,000 starting salaries, compared to around $61,500 for the coming school year), bonuses for the best teachers, a curriculum focused on reading and math, and a strict disciplinary regime enforced by cameras in every classroom. Unruly students will be removed from class and placed in a separate room, where they can follow along by video. Miles has said that librarians will likely be eliminated—because, in his view, their job consists only of “checking out books,” as he told the Houston Chronicle editorial board. Magnet programs may be scaled back, although schools will retain extracurricular activities, including sports. Miles did not respond to an interview request for this story. 

To implement these reforms, the superintendent is requiring every teacher in the 29 schools to reapply for their job. (Employees who aren’t rehired can move elsewhere in HISD.) That hasn’t gone over well with teachers or parents, many of whom have protested the looming reorganization. At last week’s board meeting, parents pleaded with Miles not to fire their children’s favorite teachers. “We want to keep every single teacher and staff member at our school, along with the classes and programs that they teach,” said Melissa Yarborough, whose children attend Pugh Elementary, one of the 29 schools being overhauled. “We are not just data on your spreadsheets. We’re a community that you’re tearing apart.” 

Karina Quesada, a mother and former teacher, challenged board members to put their own children in a New Education System school. “If it’s good enough for other people’s kids, it’s good enough for your kids,” she said. Sarah Rivlin, who teaches at Northside High School, urged the board to keep librarians. “A librarian put the right books in my hands and turned me into a reader, setting me up for success,” she said. “That’s what you want for your own children, isn’t it?” 

Miles does have defenders in Houston. Cary Wright is the CEO of Good Reason Houston, a  nonprofit group supported by some prominent Houston business leaders that partners with HISD schools to improve student outcomes. Citing low scores on the state-required STAAR tests at some HISD campuses, the organization has lobbied for sweeping reforms. “We’ve been very impressed by the urgency that [Miles] has demonstrated so far,” Wright said. “He seems to be taking an approach that’s based on the idea of equity, the idea of finding the strongest educators in the entire district and moving them to the campuses that have the greatest number of students with unmet needs.” 

Anna Eastman, who served as an HISD trustee from 2010 to 2018, praised Miles’s proposals to replace librarians with more teachers and use cameras to help identify misbehaving students. “I did think it was pretty cool that if a kid has to leave the classroom for a disciplinary reason that they’ll get to continue watching what’s happening instructionally on Zoom,” she told me. “Because when you remove a kid from the classroom, they lose out on learning time.” 

To Wright and Eastman, the New Education System represents a much-needed disruption of the status quo. Less than half of current HISD second and third graders are reading at grade level, and just one of out five HISD graduates will go on to complete a two- or four-year college degree. For some veteran HISD educators, though, Miles’s plan is all too familiar. From 2010 to 2013, former superintendent Terry Grier spent more than $60 million to radically transform twenty of the district’s worst-performing schools. The program, known as Apollo 20, included performance-based teacher pay, extra testing, and intense discipline. Test scores temporarily improved at the targeted schools, but many students transferred to different campuses, reportedly because of the high-stress environment. 

The effect on teacher morale was devastating. Shilpa Sarang, who taught English and English as a second language at an Apollo 20 high school in southwest Houston, wept as she recalled the “dehumanization” she experienced from administrators. “I would get written up for everything, like if I had left a highlighter on the floor,” she said. One of her colleagues confessed to fantasizing about deliberately crashing her car so she’d have an excuse not to come to school. The New Education System  “is exactly the same program that happened under Apollo Twenty,” said Ruth Kravetz, a retired HISD teacher and cofounder of Community Voices for Public Education, which opposes the state takeover. “That led to plummeting enrollment at the Apollo schools, no reading gains, and no sustained math gains.” Among the 29 schools included on Miles’s list are several that previously went through Apollo 20. 

Erin Baumgartner, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said that Miles’s reforms will have to take into consideration the harsh reality of life for many students. Nearly 80 percent of HISD students are eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program; 37 percent are English-language learners. “We expect education to fix everything,” Baumgartner said. “Some kids, unfortunately, show up at school hungry, or haven’t had a place to sleep, or clean clothes. We expect schools to manage all of that. But supporting students takes a whole community effort.” 

Following the heated public comments at last week’s board meeting, Miles finally emerged from his back room, wearing a checked sports jacket and a broad grin. He introduced his top staff, then presided over a two-hour budget workshop conducted around a set of massive conference tables that occupied half the room. The protesters slowly drifted away; by the time the meeting adjourned, virtually the only people left in the building were reporters and police officers. At a brief, late-night press conference, a reporter asked Miles why he didn’t show up for the public comments. “It’s the board’s meeting, and the focus should be on the board, and questions to the board,” he replied, explaining that he had already met with three thousand HISD teachers, parents, and employees in his first few weeks on the job. “I am answering lots of questions,” he said. “I will face any music.” 

Corrections, June 28, 2023: A previous version of this article reported that the state had ousted school boards in fifteen other districts. It has done so in seven others. The article also reported that every employee of a school in Houston ISD will have to reapply for their job, including janitors. Only academic staff will have to.