Citywide Education Progress Report

Key Takeaways: June 2018

Houston is home to 17 different school districts, with the Houston Independent School District (HISD) serving families in the center of the city. A looming state takeover, which may happen in fall 2018, has dominated conversation in the city over the past year, highlighting weaknesses in governance, vision, and community engagement. However, this crisis point could provide an opportunity to reassess education strategy and begin to build a citywide vision for Houston’s school system. The city’s 150 charter schools, mayor’s office, and active nonprofit and business sectors should be involved in establishing that vision. This conversation must include a sustainable strategy to improve the city’s schools and improve access to existing quality options.


System Reforms

Is the education strategy
rooted in the community?

Variety of groups Exemplar
System is responsive Developing
Broad support Developing
City engages families Little in Place

Is the education system
continuously improving?

Equitable funding Good  
Right teachers Developing  
Right leaders Developing

Do students have access
a high-quality education?

Families have information Developing
Transportation is working Developing
Array of school models Developing
Strategic school supply Developing
Enrollment is working Little in Place

Each indicator is scored with a rubric on a 4-point scale. We added the scores for the indicators to get an overall goal score. An arrow shows increase or decrease from the 2017 score.

Looking Deeper

Challenges Ahead

Working across sectors and districts to develop a vision for education

HISD is one of 17 districts serving students in the Houston area, although it is the only one to serve the metropolitan area. Interviewees in Houston noted a lack of vision for education for the metropolitan center, and the lack of leadership to drive it. HISD’s board has long been divided, so is not a natural place to look for leadership. The city has several single-issue task forces and the Greater Houston Partnership, but no task force guides a strategic, citywide plan and none has authority to take action. In 2016 the mayor created Houston’s first Office of Education, which is guiding initiatives and serves as a central hub for convening all city districts. The key to developing greater leadership in either of these existing conveners, or through a new nonprofit, will be to move beyond single-issue items toward citywide, strategic actions. A task force must also include district, charter, and nonprofit leaders, and develop MOUs to reinforce responsibility for following through on action items.

Developing a menu of options to improve HISD schools

In 2015 Texas passed HB 1842 requiring a district to close or turn around consistently underperforming schools, or face state intervention. In April 2017 the HISD school board could not agree on a plan for its most persistently struggling schools: the state could close the schools or replace the local school board if August 2018 test scores do not show improvement in any of four identified schools. The process was marked by contentious debate and revealed two key tensions for Houstonians: what types of organizations can play a role in district school improvement and how can community input be effectively incorporated into the education strategy. Regardless of possible state intervention, HISD must develop a menu of options with community input. In 2017 the district launched Achieve 180, which provides differentiated supports to identified schools, resulting in preliminary gains. But HISD should develop additional options. If partnering with charter schools is not possible to accomplish turnaround, the district could work with local nonprofits, universities, or the mayor’s office; these groups must work together now to build capacity. Establishing a family-centered process for school closure is also needed. A phased-out, district-managed school closure is better for families than a last-minute, state enforced closure, as long as it is paired with supports so students can attend a higher-performing school. HISD could also consider developing district leaders and teachers for turnaround and restart.

Increasing access to high-quality school options

HISD is home to a number of high-quality magnet schools. However, there is well-documented inequity in the magnet system because of application requirements and other enrollment restrictions. Former superintendent Richard Carranza started conversations to reassess HISD’s magnet schools so all families could have access to the quality education that magnets provide. The new superintendent, once selected, should carry forth this important conversation. Shrinking neighborhood schools can be reopened as magnet options to attract families. New magnets can open with a diverse-by-design model to ensure economic diversity within the student body, as has been tried in other Texas cities. And selected magnets can transition to an open-enrollment approach, which can be done without compromising rigor by providing student supports. Within the charter sector, Houston is home to many high-performing charter schools. However, YES Prep and KIPP Public Charter Schools are the only networks that provide free transportation to all students. Other charter networks and schools should prioritize transport—even if it is by offering subsidies to parents who drive students to school or organizing parent carpools. Houston’s sprawling geography and few public transit options make it a poor candidate for bus passes now, but transportation is a citywide concern, so charter leaders can continue to work with civic leaders through forums like the Greater Houston Partnership to advocate for the expansion of public transit options.


20,000 Families Use New 10-Minute Process to Apply to Multiple Schools

Families living in the center of Houston have a number of options when it comes to school choice. They can apply to HISD magnet schools, HISD schools outside of the neighborhood boundary, schools in other districts, and charter schools. But even for families who know they have choice, navigating and making sense of the options remains a major challenge.

And for a city with as much school choice as Houston, it falters when it comes to streamlining the process for families. As of June 2018 there was still no information guide providing academic and curricular information for all schools and no common application or unified enrollment system.

To start to improve the application process, the regional nonprofit Families Empowered launched Apply Houston in 2017. Over 20,000 families applied during the first year’s application window. And for the first time in Houston, the year’s application data across schools will be used to help identify demand trends.

The portal streamlines only the application process—enrollment and lotteries are still run by individual schools or networks—and in the inaugural year the portal only accounted for about 50 of the city’s 156 charter schools.

But this is still a significant step toward making school choice easier for families, especially those who have fewer resources. And the portal is an excellent example of starting to streamline wherever possible—in this case, among willing charter networks. Looking forward for Houston parents, a truly streamlined choice system should first include unified enrollment for all charter schools, and then for all choice options.

Nonprofit Uses Census Data to Help First-Generation Latino Families Navigate School Options

White students in Houston are disproportionately represented in the city’s highest-performing schools: although they make up 10% of the student population, white students are 3 times more likely than Latino students to be in high-performing K–8 schools.

In 2017 the Texas nonprofit organization Children at Risk expanded its services to help first-generation Latino families understand and navigate the school system.

Children at Risk used census data to find the areas with the highest proportion of Latino households and low-performing schools. Then its staff worked with community groups already active in those neighborhoods to train families to identify a quality school and understand their options for out-of-neighborhood transfers.

Children at Risk hopes to broaden its impact in the future. This will start by learning lessons from the 2017 pilot—like incentivizing families to attend workshops by providing child care, food, and transportation.

Student and School Outcomes

Houston’s graduation rate has improved over time to be about on par with the state’s. In other areas, our measures show strong outcomes overall, but some stagnation. Proficiency rates in Houston were also about on par with state averages in 2014-15, but the city made no gains over four years in math and fell behind in reading.

► Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the city’s graduation rate improved. In 2014-15, the city’s graduation rate was about on par with the state’s.

► Between 2011-12 and 2014-15, the proficiency rate gap between the city and state widened in reading. In 2015, the city’s proficiency rate was 5 percentage points below the state average.

Data are for all charter and district schools within the municipal boundary. Graduation data from EDFacts and performance data from the Texas Education Agency. See Methodology & Resources for more detail.


About Houston

Houston is a city with a large geographic footprint that includes 17 school districts—many of which serve students outside the city limits—and 156 charter schools within its municipal boundaries. Houston Independent School District (HISD), the seventh largest district in the country, serves families living in the center of the city.  Superintendent Richard Carranza stepped down in March 2018 to become chancellor of New York City Schools. Chief Academic Officer Grenita Lathan was unanimously voted in as interim superintendent and enjoys strong local support.

School Choice in the City

All families in Houston are assigned to a neighborhood school. HISD allows for out-of-district transfers and has a number of transfer options for its own schools, including magnet programs, public education grants, and space-available transfers. Most charter schools are open enrollment and do not have specific neighborhood zones. Texas law allows for inter-district choice, so students can apply for enrollment in other Houston-area districts.

Governance Model

HISD is the main district in the city, but there are 17 other districts in the greater metropolitan area. All districts are governed by a locally elected school board. Most charters in the city are authorized by the Texas Education Agency.

2015 District and Charter Student Body

Enrollment: 579,609 students
Race and ethnicity: 60% Hispanic, 24% black, 9% white, 7% other
Low-income: 73% free and reduced-price lunch

2017 School Composition 

Source: Enrollment data from EDFacts, 2014-15.
School data from researcher analysis of public records, 2016-17.

The Center on Reinventing Public Education is a research and policy analysis center at the University of Washington Bothell developing systemwide solutions for K–12 public education. Questions? Email crpe@uw.edu.