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

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.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze