Think of the Dallas School District as a Tortoise and Try Getting it to Come to You

Huge, old public school districts are like tortoises. Getting them to move requires offering the right motivation.
Matthew Field,, Shutterstock
Huge, old public school districts are like tortoises. Getting them to move requires offering the right motivation.
If I utter one single encouraging word about charter schools, I get this instantaneous backlash from people, many of them friends, insisting that charter schools are part of an elitist plot to undermine and one day do away with public school education and, by the way, I am an idiot and a stooge.

I’m not going to argue the idiot and stooge thing because, for one thing, if I really am an idiot and a stooge, I’ll be the last to know.

So let’s talk instead about the charter school movement as the sworn enemy of public schools. A thing I draw from my personal experience is this: Todd Williams, who, with his wife, Abby, was an early supporter of one of the state’s most successful charter school districts (PLEASE SEE CORRECTION BELOW), sometimes shows up in comments on things I write about education. When he does, he is unfailingly a cheerleader for public education in general and for the Dallas Independent School District in particular.

And wait. Before you write that off as just some guy being polite, I know the things he says are sincere, and they are the expression of an important underlying philosophy.

The philosophy isn’t his alone. It the basis of most of the modern school reform effort here and in the country. The philosophy is that competition does not erode public education. It makes it better.

Twenty years ago, the Williamses founded what is now the Uplift Education charter school system in Dallas and the suburbs. Uplift enrolls almost 17,000 students at 36 free public charter schools on 17 campuses. I wrote recently about the newest Uplift campus, Uplift Pinnacle Secondary, which is about to open in southern Dallas.

As soon as I did, I got the more or less automatic raft of angry, anti-charter comments, one of which had three paragraphs, each starting with, “Shame on you Jim Schutze.” Three shame ons in one comment. Even with a tough grandma and a tougher mother in the house, I don’t think my kid got three shame ons in his entire childhood. For me it’s like, “Hi, howya doin’?”

But then Todd Williams shows up in the same comment string. He writes, “Dallas ISD (the public school system) has been making major strides in student achievement by substantially increasing its investment in early education, paying effective teachers more sooner (and thus increasing retention for the teachers it wants to keep the most), [incentivizing] its better teachers to work in its highest poverty schools, expanding school choice, and expanding early college programs within every comprehensive high school.”

He goes on: “Per the Education Resource Group, Dallas ISD has moved from the 24th percentile in academic performance (achievement adjusted for poverty) ten years ago in 2007 to the 82nd percentile today among the state's top 200 school districts. Remarkable growth.”

Williams is never going to say that DISD is innovating and improving because he made it happen by competing with the district. By the same token, the people who are fighting hardest and most successfully for innovation within DISD are never going to say, “Oh, thank you, Todd Williams, for kicking us in the posterior and motivating us to do better.”

Williams has good manners. And it’s also not really in the nature of a tough competition that both sides love on each other all day long. This is a real competition.

I spoke yesterday with a person who is a good example, I think, of how it works. Michael Gagne, a software executive, was working for IBM some years ago when he heard about a program in the South Side of Chicago where major employers team up with high schools to create career paths for kids. “When you look at the demographics,” Gagne said, “South Dallas and the South Side of Chicago are the same place.”

Gagne approached Israel Cordero — now deputy superintendent of DISD, then chief of strategic initiatives — about creating a similar program here. “Israel really took off with it,” Gagne told me. Together, they recruited major local employers to engage in the program. Their first big supporter, the one that got things rolling, was AT&T.

Israel Cordero is deputy superintendent of DISD. - DISD.ORG
Israel Cordero is deputy superintendent of DISD.
"We also  brought in Microsoft, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Bank of America, Chase, Wells Fargo, just a whole host of industry partners, about 50 of them at this point in time, that are all partnered with a high school," Gagne said. "They have all sat down and identified with that high school and with [Dallas County Community College District Chancellor] Joe May and his team the jobs that they are looking to hire for and the academic skills that are needed.”

Mike Morath, Texas' commissioner of education, has authorized 17 high schools in Dallas to begin operating this fall as “collegiate academies” under the program, each with a separate area within the school for the program. “The kids have badges to get in,” Gagne said, “and they are badged as college kids.”

Gagne says competition from charter schools was not what persuaded him to get involved as a volunteer in this effort. “None of that is what motivated me,” he says. Nor is he without misgivings about charter schools.

“If you slowly suck out of the school district all of those kids that are anything other than a kid that has a single parent that is poverty level, then you just sort of exacerbate the problem,” he said.

But he concedes that pressure from the charter school movement probably made his idea an easier sell at Dallas school headquarters.

“Whether it’s [Dallas Superintendent Michael] Hinojosa or the board or any of the administration, I don’t think any of them would say that the charter schools are not a motivator," he said. "And, you know what, everybody needs a motivation, whether it’s a positive or negative motivation.

"I don’t think any of [the DISD administration] would say that the charter schools are not a motivator. And, you know what, everybody needs a motivation, whether it’s a positive or negative motivation." – Michael Gagne

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So, associating myself with DISD, I do think we are keeping an eye on what the charter schools are doing. We do want to offer choices for our kids.”

Gagne points out that this is not a game or a theoretical exercise. It is about kids in seats. It is about money, since every kid who goes to a charter school takes a state stipend with her or him. The charter gets more money, and the public school district gets less. So, yes, ultimately, this could be about the survival of public education.

“Obviously a butt in the seat that is not in DISD but sitting over at KIPP [Public Charter Schools] or Uplift is lost revenue for the district,” Gagne says, “and that’s really important.”

If somebody like Gagne took the competitive threat from charter schools any less seriously, I might suspect him of being a mole or something. You can tell when you talk to him that he’s passionate about public education, and he absolutely does not want public schools to lose the competition with the charters. He believes the public schools have a mission that cannot and will not be fulfilled by anybody else, and it’s a mission essential to the survival of the republic.

But I also have been watching, reading and occasionally talking to Todd Williams long enough — several years — to see a reliable consistency in his optimism for and good intentions toward public schools. He very clearly believes the greatest victory his charter school system could achieve would be putting itself out of business by spurring public schools to unbeatable excellence.

Not to harp on a point, but the spurring and the competition can’t be easy. It has to be real. It has to work.

Public school districts are very old, very big tortoises. They don’t sit in one place for days on end and refuse to move because they are mean or wicked, necessarily. They just don’t feel like moving, and they don’t really have to. Calling them — “here tortoise, here tortoise" — doesn’t work. Any and all poking must be entirely out of bounds. So, food.

That’s how I see the charter thing working. And, by the way, you know what else doesn’t work? Shame on you, tortoise, shame on me.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story wrongly said Uplift Education was founded by Todd and Abby Williams. Todd Williams called The Observer to correct the record. Uplift was founded in 1996 by Rosemary Perlmeter, a co-founder of Teaching Trust and clinical associate professor and director for the Urban School Leadership Program at Southern Methodist University’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development, with important support from the late Philip Montgomery III.