Dallas schools could be at a turning point. As officials consider a “home-rule” proposal that would remake the district, here's a look at how the process works and why supporters believe DISD needs it. On Tuesday, we'll report on the arguments against the effort.
It may be the most controversial education effort since state lawmakers approved charter schools 19 years ago. If supporters collect 25,000 signatures in the next few weeks, a commission would be chosen to write new rules dictating how the district would operate. That home-rule charter would then appear on November’s ballot. If at least a quarter of Dallas’ registered voters turn out and approve it, the district would follow those new rules. The process has led to loud rallies, such as one held a few weeks ago.
“It is not change itself educators find objectionable,” Hector Flores forcefully told a crowd of those opposed to home-rule. Flores represents Hispanic administrators in the Dallas Independent School District. “But rather how it comes about and how it’s implemented. Secretive, divisive, out of the blue, lacking information, lacking input, questionable supporters. How can anyone support the concept of home-rule when there are so many questions that have not been answered?”
Supporters yearn for change
Yes, many questions. But let’s stop and turn the heat down a little and ask what is home-rule, and why and who are some folks pushing it? Meet Louisa Meyer, a retired corporate accountant and two-decade DISD volunteer.
“I personally have been wanting change for almost as long as I’ve been involved,” she said.
Meyer chairs DISD’s Citizen Budget Review Commission and is a board member of Support Our Public Schools – SOPS – the nonprofit pushing home-rule.
“This law was written in 1995 and my 26-year-old I think was in second grade at the time,” Meyer says. “And there was great excitement we would have more freedom and decision-making. And I never saw it transpire.”
Meyer has seen DISD problems from the inside and says there’s got to be a better way.
“A principal told me ‘I have the person I want to be my parent-engagement person but the rules say she doesn’t fit that criteria. But for me, she’s the best person to do this, but I can’t deploy her to do that work.’"
“She should have that flexibility,” added Wilton Hollins, president of SOPS.
“Right,” Meyer said.
Home-rule would give DISD more flexibility
Hollins says home-rule could give DISD that flexibility to be more financially and academically efficient. An African-American, and a DISD alum and volunteer, Hollins says he can’t sit idly by as just one in 10 DISD graduates are college-ready.
“It’s becoming a civil rights issue to not educate those kids,” Hollins says. “We have kids graduating, assuming they have tools they need to enter into the world. What they find out shortly after graduating is that they don’t.”
So what’s in home-rule that would prepare more graduates for college or a career? Or free the district from certain rules? Well, nothing yet, says Mike Morath, because the charter’s not yet written. He’s the Dallas school trustee -- he says he might be the only one -- who backs this effort.
“Home-rule is no panacea,” Morath bluntly states. “It’s designed to let you opt out of regulations and change governance structure. If we think governance is an impediment to teachers being successful, then the home-rule debate is worth having.”
Seeking more accountability
Morath wants trustees, including himself, held more accountable. So if, for example, there’s no academic improvements in five years, a charter could force a new trustee election. Morath also thinks it’s important to change school board election dates, an option that could also be written into a charter.
“Dallas ISD has elections in May,” Morath says. “Houston ISD has elections in November. Dallas ISD’s turnout is 4 percent to 6 percent depending on the district, Houston’s turnout is between 11 percent and 20 percent. So a much broader swath of the electorate gets to play a role in choosing trustees in Houston than they do in Dallas.”
A charter could also replace currently elected trustees with appointed ones, and change their length of service. SOPS members say they’re not interested in that.
Texas also allows a home-rule district to ignore teacher contracts, but Support Our Public Schools says it doesn’t want to change that either.
There is no hidden agenda, says Jeronimo Valdez, another SOPS board member.
“Anywhere, anytime, I’ll be there,” Valdez says. “We’re doing the best that we can to reach out to the community and see who’s interested in us coming to speak. We’re interested in educating and discussing and listening to anybody that’ll have us.”
But at most meetings held so far, those showing up already seem to have made their choice.
Also: On "Think" at noon on Tuesday, KERA's Krys Boyd will talk about the pros and cons of the DISD home-rule proposal with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and school board member Bernadette Nutall.