After centuries of discouraging Black people from reading, the white appointee of a white governor is overseeing a plan to remove library workers from majority Black/Latinx public schools.
Houston Mayor, Sylvester Turner, slammed a proposal by Houston Independent School District’s (HISD) Superintendent, Mike Miles, to fire school librarians and staff and convert dozens of school libraries into isolation rooms for disruptive students.
“You cannot have a situation where you're closing libraries for some schools in certain neighborhoods and there are other neighborhoods where there are libraries fully equipped,” Turner said during a recent city council meeting. “What the hell are you doing?”
Miles calls the isolation rooms “team centers,” where disruptive students will be able to participate in learning by video. He said students would still have access to books, however commenters under the district’s Facebook page complain that libraries will only be easily available before and after school hours, which could be problematic for bus riders.
The plan to eliminate librarians and media specialists impacts schools that are at least 60 percent African American. Turner likened the strategy, aimed at predominantly Black and Latinx schools, to apartheid.
“If you want to put [misbehaving students] in the gym, put them in the gym,” said Turner, “but don’t close the libraries.”
Miles refused to address Turner directly.
“I cannot and will not govern the state’s largest school district by press conference or press release,” Miles said. “The time for politics is over, and we will not be distracted by intentional misinformation.”
But neither Miles nor any other district spokesperson is specifying which news is “misinformation.” Meanwhile, the Texas branch of the NAACP is enraged at the prospect. NAACP Houston President, Dr. James Dixon, issued a call to action for all Houstonians appalled by Miles’ plan.
“Nelson Mandela stated that the clearest depiction of a nation’s character is seen in how it treats its children,” Dixon said. “That needs to sink in deeply because what we are witnessing presently in HISD are actions towards our children that are beyond egregious.”
Fresno City College Academic Librarian, Shivon Hess, told Black Girl Times that librarians do much more than point kids to books.
"Librarians do a lot of things. It’s not just the reading,” said Hess, who served as information services director for the Mississippi Library Commission before transferring to California. “It’s about creating community, it’s about building programming that encourages kids to read, similar to summer programming at public libraries that award prizes for reading books. They build good rapport. Media center librarians get to do class visits and show students how to do research for assignments, as appropriate to their age and grade.”
In addition to inviting new readers to the world of literature and research, Hess said libraries act as a refuge for kids, where they can find alone time and private study.
Critics have started an online petition to stop Miles, but his proposal to remove book access to Black and brown students will likely move forward, despite outcry, thanks to the successful efforts of white/Republican state legislatures and governors to impose their will on minority-majority cities. Local leaders have no legal authority to force Miles to abandon his attack on inner city reading, since only members of HISD’s state-appointed school board have the power to remove him. Board members are appointed by white Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath, who himself was appointed by white Texas governor Gregory Abbott.
Morath also personally appointed Miles in June while he was busy replacing HISD’s elected trustees with a state-appointed board of managers. The state of Texas was able to commandeer the high-minority school system thanks to the passage of House Bill 1842 in 2015, which made it easier for the Morath-led Texas Education Agency (TEA) to take over “failing” districts. The bill established a new mandate for state intervention if a single school in a district was rated as “failing” for five years in a row. Wheatley High School suffered a string of failing academic ratings after the state adopted new A-through-F standards in 2018 that put impoverished schools at a disadvantage. The district mostly maintained a B+ grade score, while D and F campuses dropped from 50 to 10 in 2022—within a period of three years. Despite that reversal, Abbott was able to turn Houston’s Black/Latinx school system into his personal toy.
Miles assured parents during a July meeting that his New Education System Aligned (NESA) reform program will eventually benefit every child, even while acknowledging that some students have more resources than others.
“We’re interested in all kids,” Miles claims on Facebook. “We know that not all kids are getting the same resources. In time, you’re going to see that this is an attempt not to do anything nefarious, but to help kids get a better education.”
Miles is a product of a charter school system, specifically the Third Future Schools charter school network that he founded. His modus operandi requires teachers to reapply for their jobs and then follow a scripted curriculum if they stay.
“Disruptive” students get pulled from the class to attend via Zoom. Miles routinely eliminates jobs wherever he touches down.
Texas’ GOP leaders have worked hard to catch Houston in Miles’ claw, but U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) thinks the library closure was a step too far and could trigger federal intervention.
“Eliminating [...] the libraries are a direct hit on Brown v. Board of Education, which in 1954 decided to integrate our schools,” Jackson Lee told reporters. “It is a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act dealing with accommodations. This speaks loudly to the Department of Education [...] and the Department of Justice, who has indicated many things to me that this is getting their attention.”