It was homecoming day at Yates High School, in Houston’s Third Ward, and a raucous late-afternoon pep rally was underway outside the main entrance. The school band, the Marching Motion, played brassy fight songs while cheerleaders waved pom-poms and dancers showed off their moves. But Ruth Kravetz and her small team of volunteers had no time for frivolity. Kravetz made a beeline toward one of the cars in the nearby pickup line, a Chrysler 300, and waited for the driver to roll down the window. At five feet tall, she barely reached the roof of the car.
“Hi, we’re trying to get the superintendent out,” Kravetz said, raising her voice to be heard over the band as she handed a petition to the middle-aged Black woman in the driver’s seat. “Do you know him?” The woman nodded.
“Oh yes,” she said. “I’ll sign.”
“Would you be willing to speak to the media, or at a board meeting?” Kravetz asked. The woman seemed less enthusiastic about this idea, so Kravetz said goodbye and walked to the next car. She and her team kept going for another half-hour, until they had canvassed every car in the line. Then they started collecting signatures from the students still waiting to be picked up.
Kravetz, a sixty-year-old math teacher and administrator, is the executive director of Community Voices for Public Education (CVPE), a coalition of parents and teachers dedicated to ousting Mike Miles, the state-appointed superintendent of the Houston Independent School District. (Kravetz taught in the district for nearly three decades before retiring in 2020.) In addition to collecting more than 7,500 signatures calling for Miles to be fired, the group has organized protests, interrupted board meetings, held block walks to spread awareness of Miles’s changes, written op-eds, and given hundreds of media interviews opposing Miles’s far-reaching reforms.
In June the State of Texas formally took control of HISD, the largest school district in the state and the eighth-largest in the country. By law, the state can take over any district with a school that fails to meet accountability standards for five consecutive years—a power it has exercised over seven districts, including El Paso ISD and Beaumont ISD, for periods ranging from two to six years. Although HISD serves nearly 200,000 students spread across 274 schools, and had an overall B rating in 2022, the poor performance of just one campus (Wheatley High School, in Fifth Ward) allowed the TEA to oust the elected board. Texas Education Agency commissioner Mike Morath, an appointee of Governor Greg Abbott, replaced the trustees with a handpicked board of managers, and installed Miles—a former superintendent of the Dallas Independent School District and founder of the Third Future charter school network—as superintendent. Improved performance at Wheatley is a minimum requirement for reinstating local control.
Most Houston elected officials opposed the move, which Mayor Sylvester Turner called “flawed and anti-democratic,” as did the two local teacher unions. But in the months since the takeover, Kravetz has emerged as perhaps Miles’s fiercest antagonist. She has mobilized her extensive network of educators and parents to push back against Miles’s sweeping reforms. Over the summer, the superintendent overhauled 28 schools in the feeder patterns of low-performing high schools, forcing teachers to reapply for jobs (at significantly higher salaries), imposing a standardized curriculum based on his Third Future charter school model, and instituting strict discipline. CVPE claims partial credit for stopping several of Miles’s most controversial proposals. The superintendent has backtracked on his plans to eliminate recess at some elementary schools, prohibit teachers from giving negative comments to the media, and force teachers to pause instruction every four minutes for an assessment. (CVPE worked with the nonprofit Free Play Houston to keep recess in place.)
The group’s confrontational style and inflammatory rhetoric—members have referred to Miles as a “fascist” and a “totalitarian”—have alienated some community members. “I think their tactics are really disruptive,” said former HISD trustee Anna Eastman, who served from 2010 to 2018. “They shut out the voices of the people they claim to represent. People don’t want to participate when you show up at a meeting where people are screaming and beating on podiums.” When I asked Miles, who declined a request for a full interview, about CVPE at a recent press conference, he dismissed the group as ill-informed agitators. “Most of these people are not educators, they’re not in the schools,” he said. “And so there’s a little bit of misinformation, because they don’t have the information.”
Erin Baumgartner, director of the Houston Education Research Consortium at Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research, said that the pace of Miles’s reforms has contributed to the sense of disruption in the district. “He could have come in and taken the first year to engage differently, have conversations across the district,” she said. “From what I’ve heard him say, and the conversations I’ve had with him, I think he felt a sense of urgency, that he couldn’t wait.” That urgency may be justified. Around 44 percent of HISD third graders were reading at grade level in 2022, compared to half of third graders statewide. Just one in five HISD graduates goes on to complete a two- or four-year college degree.
To her critics, Kravetz is an obstacle to necessary reforms; to her admirers, she’s protecting children from an ill-conceived and poorly implemented charter school curriculum.
Melissa Yarborough teaches reading and ESL at Navarro Middle School, in Houston’s East End, and has two children at Pugh Elementary, in the Denver Harbor neighborhood of northeast Houston. She met Kravetz after becoming concerned about the changes at Pugh, which is one of the 28 NES schools and lost nearly all of its teachers over the summer. “I think there’s lots of people who are against what’s happening,” Yarborough said. “And as they find out about CVPE, it’s like ‘Oh, that’s the right group to join. They’re working on what we’re working on.’ ”
Community Voices for Public Education was founded in 2011 to push back against a similar set of reforms championed by then-superintendent Terry Grier. Known as Apollo 20, Grier’s program began in 2010 at nine of HISD’s lowest-performing schools, with eleven elementary schools joining the following year. Like all HISD leaders, Grier faced a steep challenge: nearly 80 percent of the district’s students are eligible to participate in the federal free and reduced-price lunch program, and 37 percent are English-language learners. Grier replaced principals and teachers, extended the school day, added extra tutoring, and contracted with an outside vendor to redesign the curriculum. The program achieved some successes—math scores on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) exam, attendance, and college acceptance rates all went up at Apollo 20 schools—but reading scores remained low, and many teachers and students complained about the rigid, unimaginative curriculum.
One of the Apollo 20 schools was Robert E. Lee High School—now named Wisdom High School—in the Gulfton neighborhood of southwest Houston, where Anne Sung was the chair of the science department. A product of HISD schools, Sung had gone on to earn three degrees from Harvard before returning to Houston to teach. “I was in a scrappy little school with amazing teachers that were doing amazing things for kids growing up in Gulfton, which is a haven for refugees and immigrants,” Sung recalled. “And I saw that school come apart very quickly under Apollo 20.”
The year before Apollo 20, 21 percent of all Advanced Placement exams taken by students at Lee High School received a passing grade. That declined to 10 percent the first year under the new curriculum. “It was exponential decline, and the school has never recovered in terms of college readiness,” she said. Sung ended up transferring to Jefferson Davis High School (now Northside High School), where Kravetz was working as an administrator.
Sung founded CVPE in the fall of 2011—“I’m responsible for the terrible acronym,” she said with a laugh—along with Kravetz and five other parents and educators. The group encouraged parents and teachers to speak at school board meetings, and held screenings of an anti–charter school documentary called The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman. (Houston is home to several major charter school networks, including YES Prep and KIPP. Charters are controversial because they siphon students from public schools, show mixed academic results, and enroll fewer special needs children.) Their first major success was persuading the HISD board of trustees to unanimously pass a resolution opposing the state’s use of the STAAR test to assign letter grades to schools.
In 2013, under pressure from the board of trustees and running out of funding, Grier ended Apollo 20. The same year, Sung narrowly lost a race for school board; she ran again in 2016 and won, serving until 2021. With Sung on the board, Kravetz took over leadership of CVPE, organizing volunteers to lobby the Legislature for increased public school funding and leading a movement encouraging parents to opt their children out of the STAAR test. In 2016, Grier resigned and the HISD board voted to rechristen eight campuses named for figures with Confederate ties, a move the CVPE had lobbied for. It appeared that the tide was turning in Kravetz’s favor.
Then, in 2019, the State of Texas announced it was taking over HISD, citing Wheatley High School’s poor performance and allegations of board misconduct. The Houston Chronicle editorial board endorsed the takeover, citing HISD’s “cycle of low performance” and arguing that state stewardship offered “the best chance in years for the district to reinvent itself.” The school district sued the state, delaying the takeover for four years until finally losing at the Texas Supreme Court in January.
Kravetz acknowledges that many HISD schools are struggling, especially in low-income neighborhoods, but says the problem is not the teachers but the state’s chronic underfunding of public education; Texas ranks forty-third in the nation for per-student spending. A 2018 Rutgers University study found that HISD was spending less than half of what would be required to bring the poorest students up to national average outcomes. HISD is a district of choice, meaning that parents can send their students to any campus that has space. That leaves many schools in poor neighborhoods serving a population of students without the resources to navigate the admissions process or secure the transportation to go elsewhere. “If kids show up to school hungry, or haven’t had a stable place to live, or haven’t had clean clothes in a week, those are things that are going to make it a lot harder for them learn,” said Baumgartner, the Rice University researcher.
Even before the TEA named the new superintendent, Kravetz was organizing an internal resistance movement. She worried that Morath, the TEA commissioner, wanted to undermine public education as a way to promote charter and private schools. (Governor Abbott, who appointed Morath, is currently trying to pass a school voucher bill in the Legislature.) Kravetz said her fears were borne out when Morath appointed a board of managers who mostly live in affluent neighborhoods, and a superintendent whose most recent experience was running the Third Future charter school network. Shortly after his appointment, Mike Miles announced his signature initiative, the New Education System. In the 28 NES schools—selected either because of low performance or because they feed into low-performing high schools—every teacher would need to reapply for their jobs. Those who were rehired would receive extra pay to deliver a standardized curriculum designed by district administrators. Discipline would be strict, with disruptive students sent to Zoom rooms to follow along by video. (Many of these Zoom rooms were formerly school libraries, in which Miles exhibited little interest.)
The original 28 NES campuses were soon joined by 57 more schools whose principals opted in to the program; these schools were designated “NES-aligned.” Miles has said he plans to eventually roll out the program to at least 150 campuses. To Kravetz, there was nothing new about the New Education System. “This is exactly the same program that happened under Apollo 20 that led to plummeting enrollment at the Apollo schools, no reading gains, no sustained math gains, a sixty-million-dollar price tag,” she told me over the summer. “It’s happening again. This is Terry Grier on steroids.”
Kravetz helped organize a kind of anti-welcome for Miles at the board of managers’ first meeting, in June. Hundreds of teachers, parents, and community members turned out to boo, heckle, and otherwise protest his appointment. At the board’s second meeting, most of the attendees were confined to an overflow room; several tried to force their way into the board meeting, only to be held back by armed police officers. One teacher was arrested for criminal trespassing and spent the night in jail.
Throughout the summer, as CVPE stoked fears about Miles’s intentions, the group’s membership swelled with aggrieved teachers and parents. Around 4,500 people currently receive the group’s email newsletters, while its Facebook page has 2,400 followers. Kravetz maintains a private WhatsApp thread with 130 of her most active volunteers. They regularly canvass door-to-door in neighborhoods with NES schools, seeking to raise awareness of Miles’s reforms, and sometimes protest outside NES campuses. After more than a decade of scraping by on shoestring budgets, CVPE has received $150,000 since January, with the biggest donation ($50,000) coming from the Houston Federation of Teachers, one of the two Houston teachers’ unions. That influx of cash has allowed the group to put Kravetz and four other organizers on part-time salaries. Allison Newport, a CVPE member who has two children in HISD schools, called Kravetz a “force to be reckoned with. She can get anybody to do anything.”
Eastman, the former HISD trustee, told me that the CVPE essentially operates as a front group for teachers’ unions. “They have a history of working to protect the status quo,” Eastman said. “They were the people who led the opt-out movement, and pretty much opposed any kind of accountability for teachers, or the system. They’re really good organizers, and they’re effective at shutting down progress.”
Cary Wright, CEO of the well-resourced nonprofit Good Reason Houston, said that Kravetz is championing a failing system. He cited HISD’s poor performance in reading proficiency and college readiness. “It’s unclear what [CVPE’s] vision is for ensuring that HISD improves and that it provides the support and services that will help promote better outcomes for students,” he said.
Kravetz rejects the argument that HISD is in such bad shape that any intervention is an improvement over the status quo. “I’m trying to lose weight,” she told me. “Does that mean that I should start eating at McDonald’s every day?” To her supporters, Kravetz’s pessimism is more than justified. “The idea that the TEA was coming to save us was a little bit of fairy-tale thinking,” said CVPE volunteer Ann Eagleton, who met Kravetz when their children went to the same HISD schools. “Ruth never fell into that. She’s very committed to democracy, and the role of our elected leaders.”
In addition to her organizing work, Kravetz spends countless hours on the phone with panicked parents and teachers. “If it wasn’t for her, I would have driven off a freaking bridge,” said Jessica Campos, who lives in Houston’s Denver Harbor neighborhood and has two children in HISD schools. Campos has been alarmed by the dramatic changes in her eleven-year-old daughter’s school, Pugh Elementary. Because it feeds into Wheatley High School, Pugh was named one of the 28 NES schools, despite receiving an A rating for the 2021–2022 school year. Every teacher had to reapply for their jobs over the summer. All but a handful ended up transferring to other schools.
“We had some of the lowest-paid teachers in our district, but they knew our kids and they loved our kids,” Campos said. “We had a great community, and it has been torn apart. The students get tested every day. My daughter is so tired. She said she feels like she has a job now, that she’s always working.”
Kravetz told me that her goal is to get rid of Miles by Christmas. Only TEA commissioner Mike Morath has that power, and he has given no indication of dissatisfaction with his handpicked superintendent. “I know that’s a pipe dream,” she said. “But these are really wicked people doing horrible things to children. This is worse than COVID-19.”
Correction, October 13, 2023: An earlier version of this story stated that Pugh Elementary is located in Settegast. It is in Denver Harbor. The story has been updated.
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