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Dallas' Charter School Plan May Be a Good Idea, But It Was Badly Executed

Jen Sorensen

I need to talk about Kenya, but the larger conversation is about Dallas and especially poor minority Dallas. So I see in advance that some people will think I must be a racist idiot. What kind of racist idiot would draw parallels between Africa and southern Dallas?

The short answer, I suppose, is this kind. But I know what I'm doing. The parallels I want to draw have not one thing to do with race, color or national origin. These are universal principles.

Swear. Check me out on this.

Last week we saw a big blowup at City Hall over an attempt by a charter school organization to enlist the help of city government in financing the construction of some new schools. The exact mechanics of the issue had to do with interest rates and tax-free bonds.

Can we not talk about that? It's just that it's basically root-canal boring, and if I really understood high finance, would I be doing this job? Let's move on to something I do understand — City Hall cluster-love.

This complicated charter school finance issue was slipped into a portion of the city council agenda normally reserved for small, noncontroversial housekeeping issues, which the council votes on all in one big batch to save time. Usually a controversial issue is slipped into the council's "consent agenda" only as a trick — an effort to slide it past them when they're not sure what they're doing, which is most of the time.

Charter schools are controversial. They are funded with public tax dollars, but they are run by private organizations — people the public can't vote for or against. Charter schools take tax money out from under public control and spend that money as if it were their own.

The theory is that some forms of public control over public money are bad. School boards, for example. They achieve lousy results. During the debate on this particular issue, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings made an emotional speech in which he pointed out that only 12 percent of high school graduates in the Dallas public school system are prepared to go on to college.

The idea behind charters is that they will produce better results and in so doing exert competitive pressure on traditional public schools to improve their acts.

Recent national and state research suggests the charters rarely live up to that promise. But I spent some time last week looking at the test results for Uplift Education, the organization that got caught in the headlights here last week, and their results are impressive.

I spoke with Yasmin Bhatia, Uplift's chief executive officer, who told me Uplift took its request to City Hall last December and then had nothing to do with it and no idea how or why the question was brought to the city council as it was — the timing, the place on the agenda, none of it.

The council, by the way, refused to vote on it and asked for a full briefing at this week's meeting before it makes a decision.

I believe Bhatia. Know why? Because she also told me they did not hire a professional City Hall consultant to carry their water for them. They just went down there like a bunch of American citizens and made their request, trusting City Hall to take it from there.

People. You cannot do that. That's like taking your nest-egg to Vegas, handing it to a casino lady with no top on and asking her to invest it for you.

It's not even City Hall's fault anymore how screwed up City Hall is. We won't raise taxes. They've had to can two-thirds of the key staff. The price you pay for low taxes, if you have a really important City Hall issue, is that you have to hire protection. They didn't do that. It blew up in their faces.

But here's why it blew up. Uplift runs nine schools within the boundaries of the Dallas Independent School District. DISD just closed 11 schools the district said were underutilized, in spite of passionate opposition from parents and community leaders in southern Dallas.

The juxtaposition of the school closings with this request for city assistance for charter schools created massive paranoia in the community, especially given the appearance of a parliamentary scam.

Was this some insider plot by a bunch of Lady Bountifuls to begin shutting down the public school system and replace it with schools only the Bountifuls will control?

You know what? It's a fair question if for no other reason than its inevitability. It's like that question I raised right at the top here about Kenya and Dallas.

So what about Kenya? Last week I had dinner with Patrick O'Sullivan, a retired Apple executive and founder of a foundation called Build African Schools. By recruiting a host of well-heeled sponsors, including tennis star Serena Williams and Dallas' own digital inventor/entrepreneur Russell Fish, O'Sullivan has been able to build 11 schools in remote Kenyan villages.

 

A sponsor must kick in about $70,000 to pay for a school. O'Sullivan told me that a person whom he is asking to pay for one of these schools usually has a set of questions in mind:

"That person's main worries are as follows," he said. "First of all, will the 70 thousand dollars get lost and vanish, and will it be corrupt? Secondly, will they build the school for 10 dollars and keep the change? Thirdly, will the school be a bad school? Will it fall down after one week, because the construction was all bullshit?

"In other words, they're looking for a return on investment, that the investment does what I say it does."

So he gives all those guarantees. The schools are built by a designated construction co-op according to O'Sullivan's strict standards. No corruption. Solid construction.

But here's the key part. Once a school has been built, O'Sullivan and his people step back. They turn over political control of the school to the village.

They don't do it passively. They set goals and benchmarks. The village must recruit, hire and pay all of the teachers. The villagers don't have the money to do that, so they must go to their elected officials and to the bureaucracy for help.

So they do that. The villagers do the political wiring, not O'Sullivan or his group. In political science terms, the villagers create and own the polity. They make it happen. Or not.

If they fail to make it happen, O'Sullivan promises to come back, tear the school down and cart it off brick by brick. So far, every village has made it happen.

I hope to write more about this, in part because Russell Fish plans to bring this scheme back to Dallas at one point and use it, he hopes, to show up both DISD and the charter schools. Fish, who has a certain genius for the impolitic, plans to call his program "Are you as smart as an African?"

If we were to compare the way O'Sullivan's group sets up the governance of schools in Africa with the way charters are established here, we might have to answer Fish's impolitic question with at least a partial no.

The way charter schools are established and governed here is not as smart as the way O'Sullivan is doing it in Kenya, because our method fails to achieve political legitimacy for the schools in the communities they seek to serve.

When I looked at the board of directors of Uplift last week, I saw people from all of the region's most prestigious companies and corporations, and I assume they are on that board and giving of their time because they sincerely want to achieve something worthwhile.

But here is the difference. Under O'Sullivan's plan, after Lady Bountiful bestows her bounty on the village in the form of a new building and certain agreements, she has to go back to England (my deepest apologies for this clumsy metaphor to O'Sullivan, who is Irish).

She can't be on the board of the school she just built. She doesn't get to choose the curriculum. She doesn't even get to pick the wallpaper.

Lady Bountiful must have faith that she has established the school so well, so cleverly, that she can now count on the villagers to get the rest of it done themselves.

O'Sullivan told me it is the people of the villages, not he or his group, who go the politicians and the bureaucrats for help finding, hiring and paying the teachers.

"They go locally to their educational representative, and they say, 'We have an opportunity to have this wonderful school. Are you going to provide us with the teachers?'

"Now you have what I call the pressure. I have issued the agreement. I have said, 'Hey, I'd love to bring you this school, but you've got to get me the teachers.' And I leave it. I leave nature, the chemistry of human interaction, to take care of itself."

What Uplift asked the city to do last week — and will ask again a week from now, after the council briefing — would cost the city not one nickel. It exposes the city to no risk, no exposure.

But the paranoia over it was palpable. It looked like a plot. It walked like a plot. It quacked like a plot.

I don't think it was a plot. It's much more likely to be a well-intended and well-designed attempt to achieve good, with one enormous potentially fatal flaw. Charter schools under this setup lack legitimacy in the communities where they seek the most intimate of all trusts — child custody.

 

In that sense, O'Sullivan and the Kenyan villagers are ahead of us. We could learn a thing or two.


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