Go Down, Moses

When the new super gets to town, Dallas will decide whether it really wants accountability

Here is one way of looking at the fact that Dr. Mike Moses, when he takes over as Dallas schools superintendent on January 1, will be the highest-paid school superintendent in the country: How much do you figure it would have cost to get someone to take over as captain of the Titanic when the ship's rear end was sticking out of the ocean?

For jobs like this, most people demand cash in advance. In Switzerland.

If anything, Moses is coming to town knowing way more about how bad it is than even we in Dallas do. Wouldn't it have been nice, for example, for The Dallas Morning News to have let us know that the entire Dallas Independent School District is slated to be declared "academically unacceptable" by the state on March 1 if it fails to clean up a laundry list of violations?

The main mess is in special ed, but that's only one of several. The district was warned in a letter from Texas Commissioner of Education Jim Nelson dated October 10 that the special ed problem alone will earn the whole district the state's worst, most pejorative designation if it isn't fixed. Did anybody mention this to you? Maybe the News didn't know. I heard about it at the grocery store. Call me Sherlock.

And lest you think this is some bureaucratic tempest in a teapot, you should know that this issue grows out of a hugely botched mess in the special education department (reported in the Dallas Observer on September 28 in a column titled "They Walk by Night") that was left behind by former Superintendent Bill Rojas. And insiders in the special ed department say the mess can't possibly be fixed by the March 1 deadline. So this could really happen. In fact, it will really happen unless something dramatic is done to stop it.

The good news is that Moses, himself a former Texas education commissioner, will be coming in the door with his eye fixed right on the question of how Dallas does in the state measurements, according to what he told me in a recent phone conversation.

"I'm very interested in the 28 low-performing campuses [designated by the state]," he said. "I'm interested in why Dallas is not performing as well as the eight other major urban school districts in the state."

Moses gave me the impression that he wants to go straight to these overarching issues of state measurement and try to stay out of ancient blood feuds within the district. Of course, everybody says they're going to stay out of the blood feuds at DISD headquarters, kind of like showing up for your first day in prison and saying, "I shall not allow myself to be drawn into petty personal conflicts." Next thing we hear is a bloodcurdling scream.

But there is actually some modest indication that we might even indulge ourselves in an economical display of limited semi-optimism, in that Moses sounds as though he knows not only how to stay out of trouble but how to get out of it.

Dare we hope?

I was calling him to see what his temperature was on the 3-year-old lawsuit against the Dallas schools system seeking the public release of data from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The first thing he told me was that he hadn't seen any of the paper on the suit or been briefed on it. But he was willing to say, in a very general sense, that he is philosophically disposed toward releasing every shred of information he possibly can.

"As long as we don't violate any privacy requirements, we shouldn't be trying to hide the ball," he said. "I don't want to spend a lot of time scrimmaging over whether or not we release information."

He pointed out that it was under his régime that the Texas Education Agency started posting on the Web huge amounts of data from the statewide TAAS tests along with detailed financial data. If Moses came here and initiated a similar régime with regard to public disclosure and access to data, it would represent a sea change in the district's relationship with the community.

I'm not talking about the district's relationship with reporters. Forget reporters. Everyone has bad relations with reporters. Most of us joined the profession in order to have bad relations with people. I'm talking about the core community, the real people. If Mike Moses agreed to take the district out of the suit over ITBS data, for example, and turned that data over to the plaintiffs, he would signal a major shift toward responsiveness and accountability--a shift with a potential for profound repercussions in the community.

From the beginning when it was filed three years ago, the ITBS suit has demonstrated, among other things, how wrong and upside-down the prevailing media picture is of school issues in Dallas. Read the Morning News on any given Sunday in the last few years, and you would carry away this impression: that it's the downtown business leaders in Dallas who are all for "accountability"--stern bid'ness-like measurements, with lots of numbers, to show who is doing a good job and who isn't in the school district--and that it's the minority leaders who are against it, because they want to protect the pork barrel at school headquarters.

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