By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In recent weeks we have seen repeated serious indications that the bitterly divided camps on school reform may be getting a tad less bitter and a smidgeon more inclined to engage in semi-civilized conversation than whop each other in the head with 2-by-4s.
A couple weeks ago when Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles and the school board attended a joint session with the Dallas City Council, southern Dallas council members Carolyn Davis and Dwaine Caraway spoke in generous support of Miles, calling on the community to lend him trust. Davis a year ago led a community meeting at Madison High School that was so angrily anti-Miles I wondered later if it had contributed to his decision to send his wife and child back to Colorado to live. That bad.
More. In March Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings got so angry with a group of Hispanic leaders that he stormed out of a meeting with them called to discuss "home rule," a campaign for changes in school district governance. At the time there was huge paranoia about the nature and provenance of the home rule effort. To many, it looked like a bunch of rich guys trying to hijack democratic control of the school system so they could turn the whole thing over to private schools.
Last week I spoke with a number of people on all sides of that issue, a few of whom would speak on the record, most of whom would not. I came away with this unmistakable impression that nobody on any side of it thinks Rawlings has a secret agenda.
They think he has an agenda. He told me he has an agenda. But the paranoia has gone out of it. Even the people who disagree strongly with the mayor's agenda tell me now they think his commitment to children is genuine, he's got both hands on the table when the cards are dealt, and he needs to be listened to.
That's a very significant shift in the conversation. It means that even if serious differences remain between the various parties — and they do — basic trust is nevertheless possible. And we all know how that goes: If you can talk, you can do anything. If you can't talk, you're screwed.
Part of the credit for the general amelioration of tone goes to Rawlings, because he has been pragmatic. "Home rule" refers to an obscure state law allowing a local community to draw up its own system of school district governance. When the concept was first floated in March, one version was that it could be used to permanently do away with the elected school board and put the school system under direct mayoral control.
In a city where single-member district elections were a civil rights milestone, the home rulers might as well have proposed re-imposition of the poll tax. The blow-back was intense.
Rawlings says now that he is still committed to a version of home rule. The petition campaign to put it on the ballot is still underway. But he says any ideas about doing away with the school board are way off the table.
"What I have said publicly is that I am supporting single member districts just the way they are now," he said. "I have told people privately that everyone is concerned about their civil rights from a voting standpoint being taken away, and there is no interest in that."
As for what home rule would be without a radical reconstitution of school district governance, he referred to a recent manifesto published by Support Our Public Schools, the main home rule group, in which they called for relatively modest specific changes — things like changing the timing of school board elections to ensure greater voter turnout — and a number of broad Mom-and-apple-pie principles like accountability and commitment.
So does that mean home rule is a dead letter? By no means. Rawlings and other supporters are still sponsoring an aggressive petition drive timed to put a home rule initiative on next November's ballot. Once home rule is in place, the process for amending and expanding it will be far easier than it was to get it established in the first place.
School board member Mike Morath, generally credited with coming up with the idea in the first place, is still convinced there are crucially important elements of public education reform that will only be possible with some degree of modification of governance.
"I do think there are substantive issues that have not really been aired," he said. He gave an example: "It's really one of the recurring media conversations and recurring complaints about home rule that you can do all this stuff already. What I have not seen anybody in the media do is take the next step and say, 'Well, why aren't we?'"
He thinks there are long-range strategic decisions and short-range but tough decisions that are never going to get made by people who run for re-election every two years. For example, he says the school board has forfeited $60 million a year in state money for pre-K instruction for 15 years because putting together an entire new pre-K system was too much heavy lifting politically.
Here are some very plausible scenarios I see happening if SOPS gets/delivers the signatures from their petition:
- the commission flat out ignores the November election cycle and takes advantage of the amount of time that they are allotted.
- Conveniently enough, this would potentially put it on the same ballot as the mayor's 2015 race.... could be good, could be bad. I'd think Rawlings has a lot to lose if his South Dallas relations stay this intense and it ends up on his ballot.
- the commission is called, majority of it says they're happy with the current operating procedures and bylaws, and nothing is changed at all- SOPS loses a chance to make an impact altogether
- the citizens realize there is basically zero community input time with a 10 week turn around time and raise holy hell. I think the SOPS experience at the Preston Forest library was just a tiny taste of what would happen.
- the 5% petition signers get pissed because SOPS sold them out in a deal
A 6th less plausible, but still possible, scenario is the appointee from Blackburn, Ranger, and Nutall join with the 4 appointees from the District Advisory Committee. They only need to sway 1 vote, and they could essentially undo all of "reform movement" efforts. SOPS will reply that it goes to the voters so nothing too bad can happen, but how many bad votes have you seen cast? I've seen lots-- Ted Cruz. Hello.
(PS- the steps to get a login for the Observer comment section are pretty intense! NSA?)
If DISD were to become a Home Rule District, our publicly elected board would have more freedom to do the things that they believe could further student achievement without going through the delays and expending the cost of seeking waivers from the state. They would also be able to do other things that waivers cannot even address.
The risk to all involved is what the Charter Commission produces. But it will have eight parents with students in the district and four teachers nominated by their peers. Together those twelve individuals represent 80% of the Commission. Certainly hard to argue why they would do anything against the interests of their own children and/or their career as an educator, and they would certainly be more aligned with helping kids than 100+ legislators in Austin who are bombarded on all sides by special interests with many not having children in the public schools at all.
The Commission members will be chosen by the current publicly elected board. It is inconsistent on one hand to argue against Home Rule because of confidence in the current board to steward the district in the future but then simultaneously argue that we can't even trust our school board to nominate thoughtful people, demographically and geographically diversified, who have the most vested stake in the district possible….their own children and their career. I trust our board to make the right decision and so should our city. But even if somehow the Commission produces something we don't like, we get the chance to vote it down and 25% of registered voters have to participate for an affirmative election to be valid.
I struggle with the concept that the stakeholders within an "Independent" School District feel most comfortable being "dependent" on numerous state laws crafted over 50 years within 2,300 pages of education code vs. entrusting people that they themselves elected to chart the right course for our students. It's ludicrous that the state tourism lobby has resulted in determining when we can start our school year. Its ludicrous that we can't even determine our own election date or the length of board terms for our trustees.
I also struggle with the concept that people think its easier to get laws passed at the state level, requiring the concurrence of legislators from areas where the children look nothing like our own children in terms of demographics, rather than pass them locally via a Home Rule process.
But all of the above is logic. This subject has little to do with logic. It is a complicated process compounded by understandable mistrust.
Regardless of what happens here, however, it has produced more awareness regarding Dallas ISD and more people focused on how to help the district from people who had become incredibly apathetic than I have ever seen. That is a very good thing for the 160,000 students within Dallas ISD. Overall taxpayer apathy is the greatest threat to our public schools. The day the majority of participating taxpayers believe that our public school system is irrelevant to the future of Dallas is the day our kids and their future lose…..big time.
I understand what this article is trying to convey- that everyone on both sides of the aisle regarding home rule is coming together in the form of support of Miles, but it's funny to me how Schutze seems to find a way to give a platform to the major supporters of SOPS/Home Rule (Rawlings and Morath) by posting their bogus ideas for a successful DISD, but it seems Schutze can never find anyone from the opposing side to interview to explain why Home Rule is a bad idea... Also, your man-crush for Morath is disgusting. He's a conniving weasel, and everyone knows this except YOU, Schutze. Maybe SOPS is paying you to further their agenda...
@amywallacecowan Dallas County Republicans would love to see this not on the November ballot. They believe Democrats will turn out big time to vote against homerule and it would hurt GOP chances in the sheriff's race, etc.
@amywallacecowan 7th possibility. The board does the right thing for students and gives themselves more power to do what they think is right vs. letting lobbying interests at the state dictate the necessity of waivers or statewide law changes. They avoid a drawn out confrontation because that's what is best for the district. Reasonable adults picked by the board are brought together to talk inclusively about the variety of possibilities that could be enacted to help the district....longer board terms allowing members to think strategically vs. 1/3rd continually running for re-election. More school days in front of STAAR vs. after STAAR, reducing academic summer slide for tens of thousands of low income children. Hurt feelings and egos are put aside by interests on either side of the discussion because the students of Dallas ISD are looking to the adults to represent their best interests.
Perhaps I am naive or delusional, but I would like to think that people elected to serve children would do everything in their power to do just that. I think the city believes we have a board that will do that. I know I do.
It's not that they feel more comfortable with thousands of pages of state education code; it's that they don't trust the SOPS folks. We don't want the public schools turned over to charters. These people were secretive and still have said nothing about what they are proposing to do. It's too iffy!
D Magazine articles and the Observer's support of Miles and SOPS are also suspect.
You are so arrogant. You have hurt the district and divided the city and you think that is a good thing?
@williamstodd "It is a complicated process compounded by understandable mistrust." Yes, anonymous money funding a surprise campaign does beget mistrust. Announcing Home Rule right after the filing deadline to run for school board doesn't help. How would the considerable assets of DISD be protected from profiteers under homerule?
@williamstodd Hello, Mr. Williams. And, I struggle with the concept of millionaires/billionaires who all of a sudden show an interest in OUR public school district. Is it not true that this is a movement by former hedge fund managers, and other big business tycoons to dismantle and eventually privatize all public schools in our country??? One such SOPS donor, in particular, has made it his mission to put an end to government pensions, and unions (which includes teachers' contracts, and due process), so that our funds can be put into the open market. Surely, you can see the possible conflict of interest situations that SOPS and the mega donors can infringe on the Home Rule Charter, even though they (SOPS) claim to become disinterested parties if Home Rule Charters are approved (sorry, but I just don't believe that). But, yet you find it illogical that we struggle with the concept of allowing possibly these same strangers to infiltrate and make decisions for our kids and communities. No, we, the voting tax payers, are not willing to give Rawlings, or SOPS a blank page to that much power. I enjoy my voter rights, and I should be the one to elect my board trustee in MY district, and not a bought and paid for mayor, or some other business individual whose first priority is to make more money.
However, I do agree that taxpayer apathy is the greatest threat to our public schools. But, hopefully, those of us who are PRO DISD will be able to work to correct this problem in the near future. I now have a community meeting to attend. Thanks for your time...
Ms. Jackson, downndallas...
@catmarie47 Can I be paid, as well? Some people say that Schutze and I are one and the same... that may be true. Just to be on the safe side, however, probably best to make checks out to both of us.
Actually, best to give me both checks... I will make sure Schutze gets his cut.
Do you think it could be waiting for me in an account somewhere?
If Democrats aren't motivated by Wendy Davis' strong stance on education, I can't help that. She has the resources to get that message out-- more resources than we will have to squash a potentially detrimental Home Rule District charter.
@amywallacecowan Wait, I meant District Attorney race.
@williamstodd Also, two more questions--
If running every 3 years is too cumbersome, why don't you protest our city council members and state representatives and members of Congress have to run every 2 years? I actually think the way the board elections are set is the best scenario, as it provides more continuity than a potential upheaval of multiple seats at once. I would encourage the city to look at 3 year terms where 5 of their 14+1 elected seats are on the same May ballot as the Trustees.
Second question- I alluded to it, but the curriculum you seem to tout if almost always computer based learning, when parents I know are gravitating towards Montessori-- tactile and practical learning experiences vs. virtual learning experiences. How do you foresee reconciling the two sides?
There are no petitions at DISD today, May 2nd. Assuming you guys got them to DISD tomorrow, it would be at least June 2nd before a commission even convened. In order for a Home Rule District charter to make it to the November ballot, it has to be pre-cleared by the TEA, and their deadline for submission is mid-August.
You're telling me that there is time for an inclusive conversation between the short window of June 2nd and mid August? You're telling me that you believe due diligence on writing the state's first Home Rule Charter can be done in 10 weeks (or fewer!)? How many months is the city spending reviewing their charter? 5, and that's assuming they wrap it up this month. Why do you support limiting DISD's to just 2 1/2 months?
People are passionate about this. You and I are among them. Everyone is going to want their voice to be heard-- plus I'm sure you've noticed the high number of people who still don't even understand what we're talking about here (i.e., Sheffie Kadane). Ramrodding a poorly crafted charter through so that you guys can check "Victory" on your tally sheets is the epitome of ego. You and I both know that money wins elections, and that once a charter is written, money will determine its future at the ballot box. Therefore, if we have to go down this road at all, it is in the best interest of our children- my own DISD-attending child and the city's children- to support the commission in taking full advantage of the 12 months that they are allotted.
As Mike Miles himself said, he is not being held back from doing his job because of the state. You mention waivers, but waivers are needed to gain exception to state rules. I find very few state rules that I disagree with. Could you cite some that you find cumbersome?
Waivers control class sizes, as well as do things like control the number of days our children are in class. Your proposed Home Rule District would allow them to increase my kid's class size without even having to seek a waiver! Why would I support that? Home Rule District allows you to shop for your own curriculum. Based on what I hear you saying you support kids like my daughter, who is a good test-taker, being put into larger classes so that we divvy up the same pot of teachers to remediate children. Why, instead of spending money to run this SOPS campaign, did you all not go after the opportunity to lobby the state to fully reinstate public school funding, so that we can reduce class sizes across the board? Is it because of the charter schools?
There are so many other things that you all promote as good for kids, but they're actually a complete turnoff to moms like me who CHOOSE to send our children to DISD, and with an exodus of our children, you will be left with a worse school district than we currently have. Perhaps you all should listen to us?
All SOPS does is point at data, and we all know that data is malleable and able to be manipulated to make anyone's argument, but even with that caveat, you haven't yet made a case for how Home Rule District is going to be good for kids-- how is it going to be good for my kid? How is it going to be better for our district? How is it going to increase achievement? How do you know it's not going to make things WORSE for families like mine?
This isn't about the board not doing the right thing. This is about a few guys with an agenda, and when their agenda isn't supported at any level, they're going to point the finger at the board and say it's their fault. The elected board is not SOPS' puppet. They have their own minds, their own ideas, and they were elected by citizens to implement those ideas, and to govern. Just because they may ask "how high?" when you say jump doesn't mean they did anything wrong.