DISD's Revolutionary Change Is a Better Story than Naughty Text Messages

Big deal brewing at Dallas school headquarters, not that you'd know it from reading The Dallas Morning News. The Dallas school system is gearing up to put what's called a "tax ratification election" before voters. The News only covers stories like that if they happen in Plano.

Here in the city the daily paper's education reporters are way too busy with the naughty text messages scandal. But in terms of ability to radically change the nature of the school district, I'd say a tax ratification election is way out ahead of naughty text messages and maybe even of so-called "home rule."

I'm not here especially to say that the proposed "TRE" is a good thing. It's not like I know everybody should vote for it. It's hard to know what it will be when it finally goes before the electorate. But I do think I know a good story when I see one.

See also: Home Rule for Schools is a Dead Letter

A TRE is a way for the school district to get out from under the Texas Legislature and its Tea-Party-inspired animus against public education, especially the slashing of public school funding and its effect on classrooms. District spokesman Andre Riley told me DISD is currently up against the $1.04 cap for the maintenance and operations tax rate and must seek voter approval to go higher. The limit, even with a TRE, is $1.17.

A great op-ed piece appeared in the News last Sunday by Peter Evett, who is a legendary history teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School. Evett pointed out that the real burden facing teachers in Dallas has been wrought by budget cuts in Austin that force teachers to take on bigger and bigger class-loads.

The tax ratification election is a provision in the law that affluent suburban Plano used last year -- well-covered by the News -- to reduce class sizes and provide enrichment programs. It's a special election in which the voters can give their school district permission to go up on the tax rate for maintenance and operations, above the cap in the rate otherwise enforced by state law. He said the earliest possible election date would be next fall.

Plano voters did just that last year in an election where the school district promised that additional funds would be used for specific purposes.

The draft comprehensive plan about to be presented as a proposal to the Dallas school board would be sort a hybrid between a TRE and a typical bond election. In the bond part, voters would be asked to let the district borrow $1.5 billion for facilities, some of which is for new buildings but a good deal of which would be set aside for improvements to existing campuses.

The TRE part of the deal would provide the district with $214 million targeted to specific programs -- early childhood, public school "choice" (give me a minute on that) and something that sounds a lot like vocational training.

"School choice" is a somewhat unfortunate name for something that looks like it may actually be pretty cool. I associate "school choice" with people who want to use my tax money so they can subsidize their kid's education in the Radio Church of God. I figure since they're the ones who think they're closer to God, they should go ask him if they need money, not me.

In this case, however, it means something quite different. The district is looking at schools like the new Mata Montessori, a huge success where demand is already outstripping capacity, and the International baccalaureate program at Woodrow, both of which came out of and were significantly shaped by community demand. And the district is thinking, "Hey, that community demand thing seems to be working."

Instead of resisting these efforts as disruptions of the ruling paradigm the way huge public school districts have in the past, DISD is thinking about encouraging this sort of effort, hoping it will produce schools that will draw the middle class back into the school system and promote economic diversity.

I know from my own kid's experience there that Woodrow over the years has developed a lot human capital, both inside the school and outside in the Woodrow community, in people who get what kind of school it needs to be to attract economically diverse students.

I remember when Mike Moses was superintendent of schools from 2001 to 2004, the attitude of school headquarters staff was sometimes that the Woodrow parents were pushy, entitled troublemakers who needed to be put in their place. And, yeah. But this new initiative seems to be aimed at actively seeking out pushy, entitled parents to see if they've got any good ideas. And, yeah.

What's really different about the district's "Destination 20/20 Comprehensive Plan" is that all of it is tied to specific academic outcome goals. Instead of a big blank check for some kind of new schools somewhere, this is supposed to be tied to specific programs and specific kids.

Precisely how all of that gets worked out will be determined in months of debate before the school board and in public meetings. Given the very narrow targeting of this money to certain campuses, I have to think those debates will be spirited. I said at the beginning I have no idea if the final package will be a good thing or not, because we don't know yet what it will look like.

But we do know that the underlying concept is a big departure from the past. And that's a good story, right? At least as interesting as naughty text messages. Well, depending how naughty I guess.

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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