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Last Window Closes on Any Good to Come of Home Rule Effort

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If there was ever a window for the Dallas schools home rule initiative to reach some reasonable outcome, it may just have closed. Mark Melton, a lawyer and education activist, made a good faith effort last week to bring about a compromise people could live with, but people told him they couldn't live with it.

That puts the home rule effort on an absurdly short fuse. The concept here is that 25,000 people sign petitions; the school board appoints a commission to write a new constitutional charter for the district; the state commissioner of education reviews the charter to see if it's legal; if it is, the charter is put on the ballot for Dallas voters to kill or approve.

The deadline for going on the ballot is mid-August. It would have to go to the education commissioner by mid-July. It sounds like the home rulers are ready to turn in their petitions. This is almost mid-May.

Turn it around. It takes five days for election workers to verify signatures on the petitions. So let's say that gets done next week. All that does is trigger a huge cat-fight on the school board about whom to appoint to serve on the charter commission. But let's say the home rulers have the votes to slam-dunk something through by the first of June. Now we have more or less 45 days for the commission to come up with a new system of governance for the Dallas school system.

Not that it couldn't be done, theoretically. But in order to get the whole process worked out that fast, there would have to be a certain preordained agenda and group pushing the final work product. But it is precisely that appearance -- a preordained agenda pushed by a shadowy group hoping to skirt the agonies of democracy -- that has been the Achilles' heal of the entire effort from the beginning. Everything has been too fast for a first date.

I talked to Melton after his effort at effecting a compromise had failed. He was clearly disappointed, but I think he also had some respect for the feelings and opinions of the people who shot him down. He wanted to come up with a version of home rule that all parties could live with and thereby head off terribly divisive fights he fears may still lie ahead in the process. He said community and teacher union leaders told him they just couldn't think of any reason to support any version of it. At all.

That's really too bad. We're sort of torn at this moment between the increasing promise of school reform under Superintendent Mike Miles and the system we've got already versus the possibility of improvement multiplied by whole magnitudes with a better system of governance in place.

I get why the anti-home-rule people don't like the hurry-up. The existing system has been around for 130 years. Why do we have to invent a new one in six weeks?

But I have to admit I also get depressed by the faculty of the status quo-sters to constantly invent arguments for not doing anything much about the district's appalling history of failure. Mayor Mike Rawlings challenged school trustee Bernadette Nutall on a recent radio show to explain why Houston, with the same demographics and the same state laws, produces twice the percentage of college-ready graduates as Dallas.

We reported that here. A commenter said, "... it's partly because they have more middle class kids. Houston's 'Highland Park' is inside HISD, whereas our Park Cities are in their own ISD." 

I commented back that we still have to explain why Houston's white kids are so much smarter than our white kids. According to the Texas Education Agency, 60.2 percent of the white 2011 SAT/ACT takers in Houston were at or above the college-readiness criterion, while only 44.6 percent of our white kids in Dallas made the grade."

Another commenter came back: "Seagoville whites have by far the lowest SAT average in the region. If we exclude Seagoville from DISD the average white SAT score goes up from 1606 to 1625."

Interesting thought: Our white kids would be as smart as Houston's white kids if we just killed off Seagoville. But, wait. Wouldn't we have to give Houston a chance to kill off their poor white kids? Surely there are poor white kids in Houston, not just all River Oaks prepsters.

Darn poor kids anyway. Things would be so much simpler without any of them.

The whole argument is absurd. There simply is no denying that something is terribly wrong with the way we have run schools here. The only debate should be whether we try to fix it the gradual way, sticking with Miles and incremental reform within the system as it exists, or go the more radical route with home rule.

I would assume Melton's inability to put a compromise on the table in advance probably means home rule is toast. The school board won't be able to come up with a charter commission that's even committed to its own mission, let alone capable of coming up with something the voters will support. Let's just hope they don't all burn the place down in the process.

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