Trojan horse

Dallas PTA leaders fear a Perot-funded district survey will be used to destroy public schools

Dallas public school moms are mad as hell. Not all the mothers who send their children to DISD, mind you, and not even all the moms who serve on the PTA, those tireless saints who give their blood, sweat, tears, and baked goods to their children's schools.

No, the moms we're talking about are the leaders of the citywide council of PTAs, an organization with representatives from each Dallas school PTA that meets once a month at DISD headquarters. These moms are mad about the million-dollar survey Ross Perot Sr. funded to determine what ails the Dallas school district. After almost a year of preparation--and controversy--the finished surveys were sent out this week to be completed by parents, teachers, administrators, and students.

Last week, however, the board of the managers of the Dallas Council of PTAs voted unanimously not to support the survey. The board also sent letters to all the PTA presidents admonishing parents to forbid their children from filling out the survey. The primary reason the PTA board opposes the survey is that it believes that rather than helping to improve the public schools, the results will be used to further the cause of school-voucher proponents--people who believe public school funds should be used for private schools.

The board is also angry with several school board members, particularly Roxan Staff, who attended the PTA board meeting last week and chastised its members for voting against the survey.

"We took a stand against the survey for several reasons," says Ruth Houston, president of the PTA board of managers. "They promised they would show a copy of the survey to the parent body before it was distributed--and didn't. They're taking class time for the students to take it. And we don't think it is good for public schools. This is like providing bullets for the gun so your enemies can shoot you. Non-public-school advocates will use this information as ammunition against us."

The board of managers grew concerned when it learned that the school district would not own the information once the survey was analyzed. Rather, the company hired to conduct the survey, Sirota Consulting Co. of New York, would issue a report to the district, and the survey results would be available for purchase by anyone who is interested. Two weeks ago, the board of managers invited Perot to attend a meeting at district headquarters. According to several people in attendance, Perot said he could not guarantee that just the district would use the survey materials.

Perot further angered the group when he said that he was not against public schools, but that he wouldn't let his grandchildren attend them, because they don't provide a quality education.

The group was also furious with Roxan Staff, who attended last week's meeting. She did not ask to be on the agenda or ask to speak, but after the anti-survey vote was taken and the meeting was adjourned, she tried to reconvene the meeting so she could speak. She shouted at the group that its stand on the survey was ridiculous.

"If that had been a school board meeting, and I acted the way she did, I would have been carried out by two security guards," says Houston, who has a child at A. Maceo Smith High School in Oak Cliff and another at Maynard Jackson Elementary School. "This is how much they think of parents. They don't have any respect for us. If she had just asked before or during the meeting to address the group, I would have been happy to recognize her."

Staff says that at meetings like this one, she is usually introduced. But in this instance, the group ignored her. On one point, she and Houston are in agreement: The school board trustee was furious with the PTA council for its stand on the survey.

Staff says she thinks the group, which has been critical of the survey from the outset, has its own hidden agenda--keeping the status quo. "I think they want to be the sole mouthpiece for the parents, and this survey threatens them," says Staff.

Staff also says the group is misinformed. The DISD board of trustees must give Sirota permission before it can do anything with the data. In addition, the survey is not just a critique of the district's faults, but also will list each campus' strengths as well as three or four priority areas that need improvement.

As far as Staff is concerned, not doing the survey--not trying to change--is ammunition for school vouchers.

The Dallas Council of PTAs is one of a number of groups that have taken in issue with the survey since the idea was first proposed by Perot late last fall. Perot had used Sirota Consulting Co. when he headed up a statewide initiative to improve public education in the early 1980s.

Over two months last winter, a team of Sirota consultants held more than 100 focus groups around the city with community leaders as well as parents and employees of the school district. From these groups, the Sirota team was to design its questionnaires. Sirota hit its first snag when community members objected to the lack of ethnic diversity on the consulting team.

In addition to concerns over a lack of cultural sensitivity, others perceived a hidden agenda to the survey. Specifically, they believed that Perot's connection signaled that the business community would use the survey results as a mandate to exercise more control over the district.

Last spring the board of managers of the citywide PTA council, which saw a bootlegged copy of the survey questions, thought the survey was too generic to be useful.

Now it objects to the survey completely. Staff just doesn't get it. "This is designed to solve problems," she says. "This is a way to get a bottom-up snapshot of every school in the district. This is not nefarious."

Unlike Staff, board trustee John Dodd thinks the PTA board's questions about the survey have been valid and helped make the questionnaires better. Earlier this week, Dodd, who shared their concerns over who controlled the survey data, put the issue to rest after he convinced the head of Sirota to put in writing that the DISD board had final say-so over how the information would be used.

The PTA council feels better about the survey, but is still fearful about the threat of vouchers that looms on the political horizon.

"If we went to a voucher system, there are not enough private schools for all the kids," says Lois Walters, recording secretary for the PTA council board of managers.

Walters also objects to the survey for other reasons. She says the district already knows what's wrong and how to fix it, and she thinks it's ridiculous that two hours of class time will be used for students to fill out the surveys.

"Like we have time for that," says Walters. "Teachers, too, are resentful. It's time the school district paid attention to the parents. They've awakened a sleeping giant. We own the district. We are the public in public education.

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