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A Cease Fire at DISD

A Cease Fire at DISD
Daniel Fishel

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.

"There is a reason why we haven't done that, that is beyond operational. The reason is just the politics. It's not the people that get elected. It's just the political dynamic of board service."

Rawlings, Morath and other home rulers with whom I spoke certainly have not given up the cause. Maybe the initial blow-back was enough to singe their eyebrows a little. They seem to have developed tactical caution. But more than that has changed.

I was out of pocket for a week and came back to see that Eric Nicholson, our Unfair Park news blog editor, had written a piece suggesting the battle over home rule may have made things better for Miles in a bad-cop/good-cop kind of way. Next to home rule and mass executions of school board members, Miles' internal reforms, like establishing a system of merit pay for teachers, suddenly looked easy to swallow.

In a week of catching up I ran into many people who had read that piece and agreed with it. One of them said, "Mike Miles is the new status quo." Another said, "Home rule has moved the goal posts." Several said the introduction of home rule into the larger conversation was sort of like throwing open the windows in a stuffy room; it oxygenated people's brains in a useful way.

Suddenly people on all sides saw everybody on the other side disagreeing a little bit with each other. When you see that, you realize the people on the other side are not Nazi spies, after all. They are people. Who care. Once everybody sees that and acknowledges it, then everybody has to take everybody else seriously, even if they disagree.

Miles told me he came away from the recent joint meeting with the City Council with that feeling. "I think, and I am serious about this, that people, the City Council included, generally genuinely want good things for Dallas schools." He has not endorsed the home rule concept and has even questioned some of its assumptions, but he also seems to welcome and even solicit most forms of pressure for change.

"I keep saying, 'We need to keep up the demand for change.' My one ask of people is that they keep up the demand for change. We are not at the point where we can sit back and say, 'You know what, we've had two years of reform and transformation, and it's time to kind of chill out a bit and sit back.' This is not the time to do that."

Looking back to April 26, 2012, the day the school board signed a contract hiring Miles as superintendent, perhaps the greatest change in the community at large has had to do with our awareness of the size of the problem. Not that anybody thought DISD was Harvard, but awareness has grown slowly and reluctantly since then of the degree of failure here, as measured against our peers in other urban school districts in Texas and around the country.

Nationally, meanwhile, two new ideas have been blooming in the public mind. The first, the so-called "cradle-to-prison-pipeline," is the awful price we pay for school failure as a nation. But the second is the exciting realization, backed up by serious research and evidence on the ground, that we can fix it if we want to. Those babies don't have to be born to go to prison. They can become our peers and our neighbors.

Morath took a personal hiding when home rule first surfaced. Some people said he was just doing it to get rid of people on the school board he didn't like. If you knew him a little, you wouldn't have thought that. But people did.

Last week in a longer conversation I heard him say something that sounded much closer to the truth: "The problem of ensuring that we give a top-notch education to all of our kids especially in a school system with just about 90 percent of kids eligible for free and reduced lunch — is just about the biggest problem that faces mankind," he said. "It's going to require real strategic thinking, and our political system does not really lend itself to doing that."


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