The Dallas Independent School District is the 14th largest school district in the country and second largest in the state of Texas. With 223 schools from pre-kindergarten through high school, Dallas ISD has around 160,000 students and 20,000 staff members. These 180,000 students and staff are just the beginning of those who would be affected by Dallas ISD’s switch from a state-rule district to a home-rule district.
To be a home-rule district means Dallas ISD would be allowed to exercise the state’s power of governance of education within its own administrative area that has been decentralized from the state. It is a concept that was created by the Texas Legislature nearly 20 years ago, but has yet to be implemented.
SMU professor Les Black believes the areas of governance, personnel and student management will be the primary differences if the district converts.
If adopted, an appointed school board would govern the home-rule district, rather than an elected board. Teachers and administrators would become at-will employees, no longer bound by the contracts of the Texas Education Code. The home-rule proposal raises questions concerning how students’ rights would be protected in terms of discipline, because the Texas Education Code would no longer protect them as well.
“Will students with disabilities be protected? Is the voice of those who live in poverty at the table, or is it merely part of an economic developmental plan,” SMU professor Lee Alvoid questioned of the home-rule proposal.
Dallas ISD School Board President Eric Cowan recently acknowledged Dallas ISD’s trailblazing ways at the home-rule presentation to the board.
“I will say that this [statute] is nothing that this current board or past boards have ever dealt with before…we are in a unique position,” Cowan said.
The push towards Dallas ISD becoming a home-rule district began in March with the efforts of Support Our Public Schools, a local nonprofit organization focused on strengthening schools and improving outcomes for students in Dallas ISD. It believes that a home-rule district would fulfill the needs of students better than the one-size-fits all approach used in the district today.
The leaders of Support Our Public Schools’ controversial proposal are Board President Wilton Hollins, Secretary Stephen Jones, Treasurer Jeronimo Valdez, Gary Griffith and Louisa Meyer.
One of the city’s biggest supporters of Support Our Public Schools and de-facto spokesperson for the home-rule district is Mayor Mike Rawlings. Rawlings mayoral campaign promised to improve Dallas’ schools, and over the past two months he has been a vocal critic of Dallas’ low rates of college preparedness in graduating students. He argues that the Dallas ISD is no longer only affecting students, but the community as a whole.
Rawlings blames Toyota’s recent decision to move its national headquarters to Plano rather than Dallas on the city’s school system.
“In listening to [Toyota’s] real estate advisors, one of the main criteria is K-12 schools. It was clear that the Plano situation offered a better situation,” the mayor said in an interview with The Dallas Morning News. Earlier this year, 7-Eleven cited similar reasons when moving its headquarters from Dallas to Irving.
Opponents of the home-rule switch disagree with Support Our Public Schools and Rawlings. They claim the disingenuous, undemocratic and unnecessary home-rule efforts will only serve to weaken the district.
Additionally, Support Our Public Schools’ main improvements of changing the curriculum and extending the school year could be accomplished without the shift to
Home-rule district challengers are wary of Dallas ISD board members being eliminated in favor of appointed trustees. Minority opponents are especially concerned because the current single-member district helps them keep a voice in power, whereas they believe this home-rule “takeover” is focused on racism and power.
Adversaries question the motives behind the home-rule challenging current Dallas ISD statistics. Over the past six years, Dallas’ graduation rate has risen from 62 percent to 81 percent. The achievement gap is decreasing, while minority college readiness is increasing. They believe proponents of the home-rule only have dollar signs in their eyes. For this reason, 70 activists, parents and teachers protested the home-rule district proposal outside of City Hall last Saturday.
Black is also concerned that the conversion to a home-rule district would decrease the spectrum of choices currently available to students and teachers, and put their rights in endangerment. He thinks a campus-based charter, which allows the parents and teachers of a certain school to move toward the conversion of a charter, is the solution.
“I would be more in favor of campus conversions…then the district would have a more varied portfolio of schools to meet the varied needs of its students,” Black said.
SMU senior Antonea Bastian will be teaching at a charter high school in the Dallas area next year and offered her opinion on a home-rule district versus charter conversions.
“I think they offer different experiences and solutions to the same issue of providing equitable education opportunity. Comparing the two is extremely difficult…but I think I see a lot of positive outcomes for children when charter education is discussed,” Bastian said.
For Support Our Public Schools’ home-rule initiative to become a reality, about 25,000 petition signatures (5 percent of registered voters) must first be collected. A 15-member commission would then have a month to create the proposed charter. The document would have to be approved with a 25 percent voter turnout in an election by the Texas Education Agency.