FACT CHECK: Is the Abbott Administration Closing Libraries as Part of Its Houston Public School Revamp?

(Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
September 8, 2023

Claim: Texas Republican governor Greg Abbott's administration is closing libraries and turning them into disciplinary centers as part of a state intervention into Houston's chronically underperforming public school system.

Who said it: A slew of left-wing media outlets, including the New York Times. In an Aug. 13 piece headlined "Texas Revamps Houston Schools, Closing Libraries and Angering Parents," the Times wrote that Abbott's administration fired librarians and "effectively close[d] libraries in some of the city's poorest schools," a move the paper suggested would hurt minority students and families.

Why it matters: Houston's public schools are lagging far behind those in the rest of the state in reading and math scores. The state's intervention aims to reverse that trend, and if the effort is successful, it will provide a blueprint for struggling schools in Texas and elsewhere.

Context: Texas in 2015 passed a law by Rep. Harold Dutton Jr.—a black Democrat who has represented Houston in the State Legislature for nearly four decades—that requires the state's education agency to intervene in failing school districts. If a public school receives a failing grade on its academic performance for five consecutive years, the Texas Education Agency must appoint a new board of managers for the school district.

Houston-based Wheatley High School received failing grades from 2010 to 2019, triggering an intervention under the Dutton-written law. Texas education commissioner Mike Morath subsequently appointed a new Houston Independent School District board in June. That board, along with state-appointed superintendent Mike Miles, is tasked with implementing a revamped education plan to improve reading and math scores in the 28 elementary and middle schools that feed into Wheatley High School and other struggling schools.

Analysis: Central to Miles's plan to improve academic performance are so-called team centers, which the superintendent describes as spaces "for an individual learning environment."

At "team centers"—located in libraries and large classrooms not used for traditional class instruction—students receive individualized attention from tutors and teaching assistants, the Texas Education Agency told the Washington Free Beacon. A student who mastered a reading assignment in English class, for example, might use time in a "team center" to read more advanced material, while a student struggling with the assignment might work with a tutor to catch up.

Miles's "team centers" are also used to host students who disrupt class time. Under the superintendent's plan, students who misbehave in class are sent to their "team center" to watch a live video feed of the remainder of their teacher's lesson. As a result, those students still receive instruction without disrupting their classmates.

That is the basis for the Times's assertion—and that of other news outlets—that Texas is "closing libraries" and turning them into "multipurpose computer rooms … used, in part, for discipline." But the libraries are not closed. They're still stocked with books that students can read while in their "team center," that other students can access even if the given library is not home to their "team center," and that students can use freely before and after school.

The Times piece, which appeared before the school year began, acknowledged some of this nuance, though its headline was misleading. "Mr. Miles has said that given limited space and resources, the decision was a trade-off and that students in schools where libraries have been converted into team rooms would still be able to borrow books before or after school," reported the paper, which did not return a request for comment.

Since the start of the school year, both parents and students in the Houston Independent School District have praised the new approach.

"Our kids will be better (under these reforms)," a second-grade parent, Melody-Ford Williams, told the Houston Chronicle. "We just can't give them the bare minimum. We got to give them something harder that they can do."

For the Texas Education Agency, the positive response from Houston parents and students "exposes how flawed" the coverage of Miles's plan has been.

"The books are still there, and the kids go to the libraries every day," the agency told the Free Beacon. "The library discussion … is occupying national media attention because it seems to be fraught with controversy, even though all of the stories related to it are false."

Conclusion: No, Abbott is not closing libraries and turning them into disciplinary centers. The situation is a little more complicated than the Times headline would have led you to believe.

Verdict: We rate this claim 4 Clintons.
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