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Dutton to HISD: ‘Get the hell out of the way!’

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By: Nevaeh Richardson

Rep. Harold V. Dutton Jr. (District 142) serves as Chairman of the Committee on Juvenile Justice and Family Issues, and a member of the Public Education Committee where he has served longer than any member in Texas’ history. He is an attorney, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity and a 32nd Degree Mason. A native Houstonian and a lifelong Democrat, Dutton’s roots began in the Kelly Courts. Dutton attended Texas Southern University (“TSU”), where he earned a BBA in Accounting. His academic and professional achievements resulted in his designation as a “Distinguished Alumnus” by the TSU School of Business. He spoke to African-American New&Issues about his role in politics and education, and what is needed to better prepare our children’s future.

AANI: Where did you grow up and what high school did you attend?

Dutton: I grew up in Fifth Ward, Texas and I went to school in northeast Houston graduating from the fantastic Phyllis Wheatley High School in 1961.

AANI: What did you do before getting into politics?

Dutton: Well, I did a number of things after I graduated from Texas Southern University. In 1966, Conoco recruited me to come work for them. I had not been the greatest student at TSU, but fortunately the dean had come to me the year before I graduated and told me that I needed to go talk to different companies that were coming to the school to recruit. So, I did that, only because I was just trying to have fun, but it turned out that I had created such an aura with the interviewers that they all came back the next year looking for me. Conoco was one of the companies, and they hired me.

I went to work in Houston first for a week, and then I got transferred to Ponca City, Oklahoma, where I became the first Black professional Conoco had ever hired.  Ponca City is a town of about 30,000 people and only 500 of them were Black, so it was a real eye-opener for me because having grown up in Fifth Ward and attending Texas Southern University, I was accustomed to my environment being an all-Black environment.

So, I was a little taken back when I got there but I ended up enjoying it because the town itself was integrated with the exception of housing. I decided I was going to live over where Blacks had been prohibited from living, over in the northeast/northwest part of the town.

And so, the newspapers and everybody in the city knew who I was because they did a big spread on me in the newspaper that I’d been planted there by the NAACP to cause trouble, and because they didn’t use the name of the person, I didn’t really know they were talking about me, I thought Conoco had hired somebody else. But then I later found out a couple of days after it was published in the paper that they were talking about me!

But I decided to stay. I helped create what was later called the Ponca City Bi-racial Council, and we essentially changed a lot of things in that town. Conoco had never actually had a big refinery there and they hadn’t hired anybody Black, ever. So, one of the things I did is started to teach Black men how to pass the tests, and as a result they hired their first Black person at the refinery while I was there. So, I stayed at Conoco about 18 years, I later got transferred back to Houston, where I became, sort of the person who everybody looked at because I’ve been the first Black professional hired. I stayed in Houston for a while. Conoco then transferred me to New York and then after that I got transferred to London, England and stayed there for a while, and then came back to Connecticut, and then back to Houston.

AANI: Why and how did you get into politics?

Dutton: Mickey Leland and El Franco Lee and I went to breakfast one morning because Franco had been the State Representative in District 142, and immediately before him Mickey had been the State Representative in what became District 142 as well.

So, they had this idea during breakfast that Franco was going to run for County Commissioner, and they wanted me to run for State Representative, and I said, “well that sounds like a great idea but I’m not going to do it,” because I thought I was going to stay at Conoco. But they convinced me after a long time to do it for one session. I told them I would do it for one session. I came to the legislature and worked that one session, and I was quite disillusioned when I got there because I just didn’t like it. I said I was never going to do it again, and so I fired my whole staff, I went to Houston and one day I was playing dominoes with an older guy over on Lockwood and he asked me “well how did you like it?” And so, I said, “well I didn’t like it,” and he said, “what didn’t you like about it?” And I said, “I didn’t like the people in the legislature.” He said, “well let me ask you this, are you ever going to be in a position where you decide who the people are who come?” I said no. And he said, “you need to learn to work with whoever shows up.” And I thought about that and it stayed on my mind for a while, until I decided “you know what, he’s right. I’m going to go back because I really want to help my community.”

AANI: How did you become involved in public education?

Dutton: That kind of brings me to where I am now because during the legislature, I asked to be on the public education committee. Some of my friends at that time said “Harold, why are you on the Public Education Committee?” I wanted to be on Public Education Committee because I had already seen the sort of decline in the education outcomes of students at Wheatley High School. Back in the year 2000, I sponsored what was called the “Phyllis Wheatley Purple and White Gala,” which honored all of the Miss Wheatleys at Wheatley High School, starting with the first one. We had about 30 of them who all came, it was a beautiful affair. One of the things I noticed more than anything was they all had to give me their bios and so I had them plastered on the wall with their picture. One of the things I noticed was the earlier Miss Wheatleys were all quite accomplished, but when we got through the late ‘80s, there was a huge decline in the education accomplishments of the others. I was shocked at that and that’s one of the reasons I got on the education committee. I realized that there was a huge decline occurring in education, not just in Wheatley but in all of northeast Houston.

AANI: You sponsored an amendment to a bill that allowed the state to take over a school district. Why?

Dutton: Let me tell you about what I did back in 2015. In 2015, the chair of Public Ed. at that time Jimmie Don Aycock. He and I had been talking and I had been showing him numbers about what was happening in Houston. At that time, I had been arguing about Kashmere High School because it had been low-performing and been failing for more than five consecutive school years. In almost every case, they were getting an “F” because the students were not passing the standardized tests, and most often they weren’t passing the tests because they were not able to pass the math portion. So, I met with the superintendent at that time and I asked him did he know why Kashmere was failing?

He said he didn’t know.

I couldn’t believe that, and so I went up to the school board members, some of whom were not located specifically in my area, and I asked them why was that the case, why couldn’t they help get a certain type of math teacher. What I was told at the time by them was that I needed to talk to my school board members, that was their problem. I said no, I don’t think so, you may have gotten elected on the school board from a particular area, but you represent all of HISD.

What I left there with was a feeling that they just didn’t have any skin in the game when it came to trying to fix the schools in northeast Houston. I said to Aycock, we need to do something about that. He said, “well Harold, what could we do?” The next morning when I met with him, I told him, “Why don’t we put an amendment in the bill that says if a school district lets any campus within a school district fail for five consecutive years, the state can take over the whole district.”

Now I never thought that would happen because I thought surely the district would fix the schools that were failing for that long. The unfortunate thing is, we got a number of campuses across the state after we passed House Bill 1842 which that amendment was in, that wanted to eliminate failing campuses within their school district. However, HISD didn’t do that, we finally got Kashmere out of the struggle so that it was no longer failing, but Wheatley all of a sudden stood out like a sore thumb, because to date Wheatley has been failing for more than almost nine consecutive years. During last year when the TEA decided that they would come in and take over the school district on the basis of House Bill 1842, HISD got their lawyers to spend an enormous amount of money to file an injunction against the state, prohibiting the state from taking over HISD. Well, the lower court ruled in HISD’s favor and kept the TEA from taking over the school district. That got appealed to the Court of Appeals and the injunctive relief was again provided to HISD alleging that basically the Commissioner of Education didn’t have the authority to do just about anything. As a result, our state accountability system was now blown up because the Commissioner of Education couldn’t do what the legislature wanted them to do in terms of just providing an accountability system for all of the schools in Texas.

One of the things I did during the last session, was I filed a bill that would have changed all that, such that it would have allowed HISD to be taken over. That bill got killed based on a point of order Representative Allen whose daughter is the president of the Houston School Board… when we tried to revive the bill, we did so but we left intact the lawsuit that was being appealed to the State Supreme Court. So now what we’re going to do is, we’re going to live by the opinion of what the State Supreme Court is, and I’m hoping the State Supreme Court sides with the state as far as House Bill 1842 and all the other bills that are concerned because we have to have an accountability system. If they do otherwise, that will scrap our accountability system, and then the legislature will have to come back to try to create another accountability system.

One of the other bills that I filed that finally passed was House Bill 4545. One of the things the federal government did this time was, they gave Texas about $17 billion that we were required to give to school districts almost without any guidepost attached to it. What I’ve asked them to do in the bill was for each school district to tell me how they were going to use the money, and the money was going to be allocated based on the Title I students that a school has. I was afraid that money would be spent, not on improving student outcomes, particularly those students at the bottom. So, what I did in House Bill 4545 was decided that we create a fund of about $250 million that would go to school districts to provide tutoring to those students who had failed the 2019 STAAR test. Those were the students we identified that were at the bottom pre-pandemic. Of course, after the pandemic, we recognized that many of those students had done nothing but set a new level for the bottom, so we needed to do what we could for them. The way that would work is we would provide $1000 for each student that a school district got to improve beyond their STAAR tests in 2019. There was a whole outcry, particularly led by all of the people in the legislature who were representing HISD who said they don’t like student outcome-based funding.

What struck me as strange is that HISD was looking for a new school superintendent and when they got one, one of the things they negotiated in that particular contract with the new school superintendent was outcome-based funding for students that the superintendent can get up to $150,000 more in income if he or she improved student outcomes. Well, I thought that was totally contradictory to what they were espousing in House Bill 4545 because they basically alleged that they didn’t like it and yet they turned around and put in a contract student outcome-based funding only for the superintendent.

The difficulty has been trying to deal with some of the hypocrisy in HISD. One of the things we did, not this session but last session, we created House Bill 3. House Bill 3 provided all kinds of incentives for school districts to pay teachers up to $32,000 more a year. House Bill 3 was going into some of the schools that were consistently low-performing and rated “F.” For example, Dallas ISD used House Bill 3 and, as I understand it, they no longer have campuses that are failing.

What did HISD do? They did absolutely nothing. They did not use House Bill 3 to try to improve the schools in northeast Houston. What they simply did is promote what they call their “Choice Program,” where students, supposedly, can go to any campus, which in HISD’s case causes all of the students who want a good education in northeast Houston to have to get on a bus to go across town to another school. To me, that’s not a choice, that’s a sentence for all those students who can’t get out of that area to go across town.

We have a self-interest in trying to improve the schools in Houston, and I have dedicated my session to making sure that we begin to get those kinds of improvements because I don’t think that from where I sit, I have seen that the school board is going to play fair with students and families in northeast Houston. When I look around at what some young students are doing and creating all kinds of problems for themselves and their futures, and engaging in criminal activity, many times that’s happening because these kids don’t have much in the way of options because we have not allowed them to get the proper education so they can begin to make the right choices and create a future for themselves.

We’re not only doing a disservice to them, we’re also doing a disservice to the children that they have, and their children. We’re ruining generations of children simply because we don’t educate, and I know for a fact, there is nothing wrong with the children while people try to suggest that they’re from a poor area, well the area was even more poor when I came along, and yet we learned. We learned because we had committed teachers, sometimes we didn’t have the right resources or the resources that other kids had, many of the books we had were second-hand books that came to us from across town.

HISD has not faced up to its responsibility for students in northeast Houston, and to me that’s almost criminal because when these kids go astray and do what they’re doing sometimes we shake our heads and wonder ‘gosh how could a kid do that?’ Well, a kid could do that because we haven’t helped them get other options in their life, because we simply didn’t provide an education for them, and that’s a problem that we need to all join together to try to solve. If the HISD school board won’t address it, then I’m all for having somebody else take a look at it.

 

AANI: It sounds to me like HISD is actively against the improvement of schools on the Northeast side but not only those schools… as a graduate of Jack Yates High School, seeing the decline you speak about among Yates alumni from the 50s-60s era are way more educated and successful than the ones now… not only seeing that at Yates but at Worthing and other historic Black high schools. We know it’s a lack of resources, but why is it that HISD isn’t fighting for those resources?

Dutton: I think you probably ought to ask them. When you go back and look at the history of HISD, if you go back and look at the desegregation lawsuits that were happening way back in the ‘60s, you see when HISD agreed to settle these lawsuits… one of the things they said in these lawsuits is that they were going to create programs to stop white flight away from the district. Think about that, they created programs to stop white flight away from the district. That means that the primary focus is not going to be on the children that I represent because their focus is going to be on trying to do something that keeps kids from leaving the district. Well who is leaving the district? Well, white kids. The truth of the matter is, HISD is becoming more a district that’s dominated by students of color. I will tell you this, there are people who say, ‘well, the state ought to step up and do more in funding public education.’ I agree with them, I tell people I agree with them in that respect, but I don’t think that explains the differences between Wheatley and Lamar. That doesn’t explain the difference between Yates and Lamar. Even in this financial climate, Lamar seems to get all the resources it needs. My question is, why can’t these other schools, the Wheatleys, the Kashmeres, the Yates, the Washingtons, the Worthings, and the like get their fair share of resources? I don’t mean just money either, I mean teachers.

When you look at the schools that I just named, and you look at the principals and how often the leadership is changed in those schools, versus the leadership in the schools on the other side of town, one of the things you see quite readily is that we have a higher turnover in Black schools, than they do in schools on the other side of town. To me, that’s a problem, and I think that has always been a problem.

I just think that HISD has lost its way. They’re not doing the kinds of things that you ought to do to improve the schools in northeast Houston. I think there’s this idea that something is wrong with the students in Northeast Houston, not something is wrong in what we’re giving the students or what we’re not giving the students in Northeast Houston. HISD ought to step up and provide us the kind of education that we deserve and demand or get the hell out of the way and let somebody else do it!

AANI: Tell the people, what’s next for Rep. Dutton?

Dutton: What’s next? Well, I’m going to stay on this until we get it right. What’s next for me is I’m going to keep fighting to make sure that we improve the environment for students learning in Northeast Houston and for all the students who’ve been left out. I’m going to keep fighting to make sure that HISD pays attention to them and brings them every resource we can to make sure they learn and that the can have a future that is as bright as anybody’s.

 

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