Dallas County voters cast ballots Tuesday to kill a school district — kill a school district — by a margin of almost 17 percentage points. What does that mean?
All right, you and I know the backstory on this particular so-called school district — not a real school district, quarter-million-dollar campaign contributions from vendors, weekend apartments in the French Quarter — so we’re not shocked. I assume most of us are gratified. The voters took this bad bucking horse out behind the barn and put a bullet in its head, and now the whole farm can breathe a sigh of relief.
But we killed a school district.
It’s not necessarily an easy thing to explain to people far away: “What’s going on down there in Dallas today?” “Nuthin’ much. We killed a school district. Hopin’ for rain tomorrow.” It’s a thing that needs explaining.
We can explain it, of course. Dallas County Schools was a weird legacy from yesteryear, didn’t have any schools, functioned as the world’s worst bus service for the real school districts in the county. KXAS-TV (NBC 5), the station that gets credit for uncovering all the abuses, just kept coming up with bombshell after bombshell. I think we killed it in part because we were afraid of what was coming next.
So you could make a reasonable case that killing DCS had nothing to do with the way people feel about public education or local government. I happen to think, however, that it would be an enormous mistake for people in public education and local government to believe that. Killing an entire entity of government is not without larger meaning.
The jury is still out and the story not yet told on the reform efforts that took place in the Dallas Independent School District under Mike Miles, who was superintendent here from 2012-15. Reforms put in place by the Dallas school board during the Miles regime promised to put Dallas at the national forefront in key areas like teacher merit pay and focused improvement in the most beleaguered schools.
Miles’ successor, Michael Hinojosa, who had already been superintendent here once before, vowed upon his return to preserve the best of the Miles reforms. We’ll see. But clearly the city’s business leadership brought Hinojosa back mainly as an effort to calm the waters, and calm is not often a characteristic associated with meaningful reform.
What struck me during the Miles years was how impressively effective the forces of resistance were in fighting off meaningful reform. The longer Miles was here and the more inroads he made, the larger the darkening cloud of opposition grew over his head, and that cloud seemed to gather in from far reaches.
They swooped in with swords drawn from the ed school at the University of Texas in Austin. National figures like anti-reform author Diane Ravitch took note of us. The hierarchy of the Texas Democratic Party joined the fray.
Here, the teachers unions, sworn enemies of merit pay, allied themselves closely with the apparatus of political patronage left behind by the federal courts when they signed off on local desegregation. Especially in the old black Dallas, distinct from the new, younger, upwardly mobile black Dallas, school district jobs are viewed as spoils of war from the civil rights era, and merit pay is viewed as a white plot to take them away.
The unions were effective at stirring that pot and mixing with it a certain strain of old white liberalism that views public education as liberalism’s private bastion against the corporate bastards. I’m talking about friends of mine, or, in several cases, former friends. All they had to see was one corporate bastard on a committee, and the whole thing was a global bastard plot.
I tried to say, “I talked to that bastard, and all he wants to do is teach the kids to read.”
My friends would say, “Oh, sure! Teach them to read bastard stuff, you mean!”
One thing did not escape my attention: Among my friends, the angriest opponents of reform tended to be those who either worked for the district or had family members who did. I hasten to add that some people I know who work for the district are ardent supporters of reform. But more of the district employees I know personally want to be left the hell alone and just keep on keeping on the way they always have.
When you take into account that the Dallas school system spends $1.78 billion a year just to keep on keeping on, not to mention another quarter-billion on construction, that’s a whole lot of money, a veritable castle of money, an enormous fortress of money. That huge golden fortress is ferociously devoted to fighting off invaders of any stripe or kind, especially reformers.
To be fair, if you and I were sitting on 2 billion bucks a year, we might not be enthusiastic about reform. Our own mantra might be what I saw from the parapets of DISD — a thicket of middle fingers and a chorus of, “Reform this!”
But that’s exactly what brings me back to what we just did here in the Tuesday election — killed a school district. It wasn’t only the drumbeat of terrible stories from NBC 5, although they certainly provided the fuel for our torches. It was also the clear impression that the people running DCS were going to temporize and nibble around the edges and come up with new excuses and promises until we all went numb and went away.
I believe there was a lightbulb moment. I think the voters saw at some moment that DCS was hopeless. It was big, incompetent, intransigent and unable to come to any true meaningful recognition of its failings. It spends $181 million a year in public funds. Like its much bigger cousin, DISD, DCS is only excellent at one thing: protecting itself.
That’s when you decide to take it behind the barn and shoot it. There’s a core wisdom in the voter’s mind. The voter sees that this enormous, oats-devouring, stall-busting beast is always going to use more of its mass and energy to kick us in the head than to do us any good. The horse comes to a tipping point. If I were a leader in local public education, I would take the vote to kill DCS as a tipping point, even allowing for the very significant differences between DCS and a real school district.
In the weeks before the vote, I got calls from thoughtful, concerned friends who were hearing on the liberal grapevine that, without DCS, it might cost school districts more money to provide busing for kids. I said I thought that might be possible for a while. Blowing up an entire agency is bound to create a certain amount of mess.
But I think that’s in the equation. Suffering through X amount of mess may be a good price to pay for getting rid of Y amount of totally intransigent, self-serving waste. Blow it up and try something new.
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I also heard from people who were furious that killing DCS would give aid, comfort and encouragement to certain far-right opponents of all public education. But, look, everything we do gives aid and comfort to somebody.
Also, we need to be careful about the battle lines we draw. If the champions of public education are willing to defend its worst dregs in order to preserve the entire enterprise, then they merely prove the case against them, that they will oppose any and all reform at any cost. Guess where that takes us. Back to that tipping point we’ve been talking about.
The linkage between the voters’ decision to kill DCS and the fate of local public education is not direct by any means. DCS was legitimately an outlier, and it would be unfair to paint the Dallas school system with that brush.
But the linkage is not nonexistent. Tuesday’s vote shows that the voters will take a horse behind the barn and do what must be done if there is no other way. If I were a horse, I’d have my ears up.