Citywide Education Progress Report


Key Takeaways: System Reforms

Houston has strong nonprofits, business groups, and funders that support education programs across the city. However, the city struggles to unite to forge a common vision for its portfolio of schools. Inequity in school access also remains an issue. Over the past year, several large charter school networks coordinated their application processes to improve access to choice options, but citywide enrollment, information, and transportation are not coordinated.


Is the education strategy rooted in the community?


Is the whole community engaged? Education is a citywide endeavor. When families, community organizations, and city leaders have the opportunity to provide feedback and share in the vision, the strategy is more likely to be sustainable and meet the needs of all students. In this goal, we look at how well the city is doing with engaging key stakeholders.


► Are a variety of groups engaged in education?

Houston is a vibrant city with many groups and cross-sector partnerships involved in education. The mayor’s office works with districts, post-secondary institutions, and nonprofits on general and single-issue initiatives, including Out2Learn, a citywide collaboration to increase access to out-of-time learning. The Greater Houston Partnership leads two education-related initiatives and convenes charter, district, and business leaders to discuss common issues like transportation. United for College Success convenes eight charter management organizations (CMOs) and three districts, including HISD, to improve college attendance and persistence. The Houston ISD Foundation coordinates foundation support for HISD. Families Empowered and Children at Risk work with low-income families to educate them about school quality and help them navigate the choice process. Houston is home to an active faith-based community and other education-related nonprofits like Leadership ISD, which operates a fellowship to prepare civic leaders for work in education advocacy and governance.


► Does the education system respond to community feedback?

HISD and charter networks recognize the need to improve their responsiveness to families. HISD’s mechanisms for input include listening tours, livestream superintendent Q&As, and online voting. The city’s larger CMOs are beginning to work with parent engagement specialists. However, interviewees noted that there is still work to be done to reach high-poverty communities and provide avenues for engagement. School councils are a key way for families to engage with HISD, but the most well-developed councils are in magnet option schools or in affluent neighborhoods.


► Is there a strong and deep coalition of support for the education strategy?

Houston’s current mayor, Sylvester Turner, is involved in several citywide education initiatives—a marked difference from past administrations. His Mayoral Task Force on Equity released the report Rising Together that includes several education-related recommendations, and his Office of Education releases education reports and policy suggestions. Interviewees noted that the HISD school board is fractured and lacks the trust of the community. HoustonGPS has been working to improve the quality and accountability of the school board.

Little in Place

► Does the city engage families in educational decisions that impact them?

In 2017-18, public discussion about closing or transforming district schools was frequent, but revealed weaknesses in the ability of HISD’s board to respond to and incorporate community input. HISD hosted 13 meetings in February and March to talk with families about schools identified on the state’s “improvement required” list. The final plan was announced only days before the board’s vote; community outcry led to the plan being rejected. We do not have information about engagement processes related to school openings.  Within the charter sector, charter schools by law must work with local communities prior to opening or closing schools, but the quality of engagement varies by school.

Is the education system continuously improving?


Do schools have the resources they need? School improvement happens at the school level, but making sure resources are available requires sound, citywide policy. Having the right talent in a city is critical for schools to be able to provide students with a quality education. Schools should also have control over their budgets so they have the resources to address the needs of their student population.


► Does funding equitably follow students?

HISD has a student-based allocation formula that provides district principals with some discretion over spending decisions. This equates to 43% of district expenditures according to an Edunomics analysis. In 2018, community interviewees noted concern that struggling schools do not have the resources they need to serve students. Charter schools receive fewer dollars on a per-student basis than district schools and receive no facilities funding from the state (based on an analysis of fiscal year 2017-18).


► Do schools have the kinds of teachers they need?

Interviewees noted that attracting and retaining high-quality teachers is a challenge for HISD and local charter schools. Several strategies are in place to address this: In partnership with the University of Houston, the district launched Teach Forward Houston, which recruits new teachers from graduated high school students. YES Prep, a large charter network, has a state-authorized alternative certification program, Teaching Excellence, that includes several Houston-area charter schools and districts (HISD does not currently participate). Smaller charter schools, without their own pipelines in place, struggle the most to recruit and retain teachers.


► Do schools have the kinds of leaders they need?

Interviewees noted that it can be challenging to find quality leadership for district and charter schools. To address this, HISD hosts the School Leadership Academy, which offers a pathway for teachers to become deans and assistant principals. CMOs also develop leaders from within, although there is a perception within the charter sector that some leaders are promoted before they are ready. There is no coordinated effort within the charter sector or with Houston-area districts to cultivate school leadership.

Do students have access to a high-quality education?


Do school choice and supply meet family needs? This goal addresses how well the city is doing with providing families access to quality schools. We look at what the city is doing to ensure quality schools are in every neighborhood, and how well the choice process is working for families who want to use it.


► Do families have the information they need and know how to use it?

Interviewees noted that families with children requiring English language learner or special education services face the greatest barriers to finding a good-fit school. Houston lacks a consolidated guide that has academic and programmatic information for all schools. Families Empowered publishes a school directory with links to school websites, and the statewide nonprofit Children at Risk provides comparable academic information through its Texas School Guide. Both groups also support families through the choice process.


► Is transportation working for families?

HISD provides yellow bus transport to students in magnet schools and assigned neighborhood schools outside a two-mile walk zone. KIPP and YES Prep also provide free transportation. However, families with children who attend schools outside their neighborhood zone and those attending most charter schools must arrange their own transportation. Given the size of the city, families who do not have private transportation find that distance poses a significant obstacle to getting their child to a higher-performing school or to a program they prefer.


► Does the school supply represent an array of models?

HISD has a strong magnet program that accounts for about 10% of all schools in the city. However, over three-quarters of those magnet schools have enrollment restrictions—in 2017 and 2018, there was some discussion about making programs more accessible to families. Traditionally, Houston has been dominated by a few large CMOs, but single charters or small, local networks still make up a third of all charter schools that opened between 2014 and 2017. Among them is BakerRipley, a community center that operates schools using a wrap-around services approach. Charter networks IDEA and International Leadership for Texas are planning to expand into Houston.


► Is the city strategically managing its school portfolio?

A 2015 state law, HB 1842, sets clear criteria for improving district schools that have been underperforming for five consecutive years, and the Texas Education Agency is a strong charter school authorizer that takes action on low-performing charters. In 2017, HISD launched a strategy to improve 45 underperforming schools: Achieve 180. In terms of school expansion and siting, there is demand for more high-quality charter, magnet, and district schools citywide. There is no transparent data to guide school siting decisions, especially around demand or projected enrollment. However, charter network YES Prep provides a promising example by conducting its own analyses so it can strategically expand where schools are most needed. We did not have information about HISD’s criteria for opening or expanding schools.

Little in Place

► Is the enrollment process working for families?

In 2017, five charter networks in Houston launched a common application portal, Apply Houston. In the first year, the portal was used by about one-third of all charter schools in the city. This is an improvement for families, but application and enrollment for schools of choice—charter or district—remain complicated. Non-participating charter schools and district schools have multiple competing deadlines, and lotteries are still controlled at the school level.

Data & Scoring

Where did we get this information?

► Interviews with district, charter, and community leaders

► Policy documents from district, charter, and state websites

► School data from each city

► A 400-parent survey administered in March, 2017 in Cleveland, Denver, Indianapolis, Memphis, New Orleans, Oakland, and Washington, D.C.

How did we score the
system reforms and goals?

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. See the Methodology & Resources page for details.

Score Levels


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.