We must knock wood and throw salt over our shoulders. Don’t say anything to mess it up. But the Dallas public school system, already an unheralded center of innovation, may also be emerging as an unheralded beacon of stability.
And the unheralded part — no New York Times stories, no 60 Minutes — could be a good thing, after all. I am rethinking. A hint would be the stories that do get attention these days.
The Houston Independent School District, for example. HISD is such a mess, it has been seized by the state. Or we could look at the Denver public school system. Considered the leading edge of reform in the country up until now, Denver’s school board has been taken over by a newly elected Visigoth majority bent on smashing everything good Denver has accomplished in the last five years.
Not too long ago, barely five years, our school board in Dallas was a kind of multiple mug-shot Post Office wanted poster. Now the board is purring along smoothly toward incremental improvement, according to Trustee Miguel Solis, who would know.
Solis, who was elected as a reform board member six years ago, is now, at 33, the grand old man and institutional memory of the reform effort in Dallas. He took me to task this week, very gently, for suggesting in a recent column that school reform is in the toilet and that Hades, god of the underworld, will soon descend to wreak havoc and pestilence on us all, which, in retrospect, I admit may have been a partial overstatement, not to mention the mixed mythology.
I was talking about a recent decision by the superintendent not to take part in a state-sponsored program encouraging certain types of partnerships with outside entities. Let’s set that one aside for the moment.
Solis this week was telling me that the debates on the Dallas school board these days are not the old bone-crunching battles of a few years ago over long-range direction. Now, he says, the board debates technical differences of opinion on how to get there.
There is near-solid consensus on the board, he insists, on major goals like core competency, racial equity and desegregating the school system racially and economically by wooing back middle-class families with innovative schools.
Board member Dustin Marshall, another reform stalwart, agrees with Solis that things are hopeful in spite of disputes like the recent one over partnerships: “We have eight trustees who may not always align on the exact mechanics of what reform looks like,” he says, “but we have a common sense of purpose in making decisions that are in the best interest of kids.
“The administration I think feels pretty comfortable that they’ve got support to push innovative and thought-provoking change and to pilot some ideas and see what works and then scale those things that the data bears out.”
Solis says the main differences of opinion on the Dallas board today are about marshaling research and data properly to support specific courses of action. “And that’s a hell of a good problem to have,” he says.
Well, yeah. Compared with Houston. In a devastating blow to the prestige of that city, Texas Education Commissioner Mike (“Hades”) Morath descended on the Houston public school district last month citing massive misfeasance by board members, general chaos and possible criminality. Morath, a former Dallas school board member, announced he was shutting down the elected school board in Houston, replacing it with his own appointed “board of managers.”
Most people in Texas didn’t even know that could happen. But, yes, school districts like cities in Texas are “creatures of the state,” meaning we only have them because the state says we can. If we bollix them up badly enough, the state has the power and duty to step in and take them away from us. But it’s still not the sort of thing you expect to see happen to the nation’s fourth-largest city (we’re ninth).
Houston is the energy capital of the world, a global center of technology and science with wonderful art museums and a name for getting things done. How in the world could it screw things up badly enough to get its entire school district repo’d?
The truth is that the Texas Education Agency did the repo because it didn’t have a lot of choice. In 2016, the TEA appointed what’s called a conservator to oversee the district. That’s basically a spy whose job is to report back to Austin on what the district is doing. The reports were all bad. In fact, awful.
The Houston schools are not rock-bottom terrible when its student outcomes are compared with outcomes in other major urban districts with similar demographics. What’s rock-bottom is the school board. A summary TEA investigative report found that Houston board members were frequently and stubbornly sticking their noses into the day-to-day operations of the district, sometimes with the transparent motive of steering school district contracts to favored bidders.
In the TEA report, my own favorite character is Houston school board president Diana Davila, sort of the Lady Macbeth of Houston schools. In one stunning scene, Davila strolls into a brand-new school, points to a wall and orders that it be made to disappear. To the consternation of the school principal, workers tear down the wall for her.
In another section of the report, Davila and her husband invite a senior school official to lunch to discuss with him how they can get contracts taken away from people who have won them through the proper process and have the contracts assigned instead to people the Davilas like. When the administrator expresses nervousness, the Davilas inform him that “It will happen if we want it to happen.”
When Morath was a Dallas school trustee, he was an early and strong champion of reform. But Solis urged me this week not to interpret his shutting down of the Houston school board as anything to do one way or the other with the ideas at the core of the school reform movement. And after I read the investigative report, I agreed.
I thought, “Oh, that’s just about stealin’ money. Morath had to shut that joint down while there was still some money in the till.”
Why Houston? I don’t know. In the mid-1990s when I was the Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle, the paper loved it when I sent them stories about how screwed up the Dallas school system was. And it was. Especially the board. We had people carrying shotguns into school board meetings just so they could be heard above the din.
That’s why I say knock wood, throw salt. No bad karma. We don’t want to do anything to waken our own bad school board demons from their slumber.
Denver is at the other end of the scale. For the last several years, Denver has led the nation in radical school reform, especially in the area of open enrollment, which basically means letting parents put their kids into the schools of their choice, as well as some kinds of partnerships with charter schools. The underlying concept is spurring individual campuses toward excellence by making them compete for students.
Everybody knew that idea would be viewed as anathema by the teachers unions, who see all forms of competition as threats to seniority-based pay and job security. But nobody knew how much anathema. Following a bitter teacher strike, the local union, supported by a river of cash from around the country, was able to flip the Denver school board in a recent election. A solid board majority in favor of reform was flipped in one election to an overwhelming majority against.
The general outline for what lies ahead is already clear. The new Denver board members are already talking about replacing competition with a new ethic of "collaboration" (a word with more than one implication), which almost certainly means hacking apart years of progress to keep the union happy.
It’s a cautionary tale, perhaps, about being too far out front and too visible. The Denver saga has made me rethink my own frequent complaint in the past that Dallas deserves more national attention for the progress it has achieved. I guess I need to be more thoughtful about what national attention gets you.
I do have a personal complaint about the Dallas school board today and how it affects my own life. At a schools-related function in North Dallas on Tuesday, I sat next to a Dallas elementary school principal. I told her that the current superintendent and school board are running things so quietly and calmly that it’s very difficult for me to get any good stories out of them.
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She gave me a look. It was sort of equivalent to that thing they do in Dracula movies where people make a cross in front of themselves with their two index fingers. OK, fine. But, you know, I’ve got needs, too.
Oh, I’m just kidding. I do believe there is a mood of very quiet optimism rising up out of the Dallas public school system right now. We should be so lucky. I know in my heart what kind of terrible pain Houston is going through with its schools right now, because I saw that pain here, up close and personal, in the ’90s and again in another lesser cycle not five years ago.
So I get the keeping quiet. I get the not gloating. Cross our fingers, rub a synthetic rabbit foot. Hope it lasts. I still don’t think the Dallas superintendent’s recent decision to duck out of the subsidized partnership thing was cool. If not an actual step in the wrong direction, it was at least a look.
But Solis is perfectly correct. That decision alone probably will not turn water to blood or bring plagues of frogs, lice, flies, massive livestock death, boils, hail, locusts, darkness or the killing of firstborn children. I never said it would. At most, the frogs thing. And that remains to be seen, by the way.