Should Dallas ISD Be Broken Into Smaller Districts?

Well, my immediate reaction is no, but I've got kind of a yessy aftertaste.

Perhaps you saw on Channel 8 or read the news story in the Dallas Morning News or read Rudy Bush’s analysis of it online. Either way, you’ve probably heard someway that the idea of breaking up DISD into smaller districts is back in the news.

The idea is not new. Several months back, right before the idea of a home rule district picked up steam, local news outlets reported on the idea of forming a White Rock ISD. I doubt this was the first time anybody had heard about the concept of splitting up DISD, and idea that has surfaced publicly several times the past two decades. It’s recently been picked up by state Rep. Jason Villalba from North Dallas, but it was originally floated by state Rep. Yvonne Davis of southern Dallas. I suspect anyone who has ever engaged in a DISD conversation has talked about it once or twice.

I think it’s worth exploring why this topic keeps coming up, which helps inform whether or not this is a good idea.

One reason the idea survives is because we all think DISD stinks, even if we don’t know why. We’re just sure of it.

Why do we think this, then? In no small part, it’s because we remember scandals and don’t seek out countervailing information. This was exacerbated by the Dallas Morning News for years, which traditionally treated the beat more as an investigative one rather than an explanatory one. (I’ve commented on this before. As have other, smarter people.) To be fair, the paper has in recent years gotten better about exploring context and nuance — especially Rudy Bush on the editorial side — and reporters like Steve Pickett at Channel 11 and KERA’s Bill Zeeble do a good job of alternating the more sensational stories with ones of nuance, to give a fuller picture of the district. But overall, the media takeaway by most people is that the district is one big tire fire.

I have my own opinions whether DISD stinks, which you probably realize if you read this blog. Let’s go over it again, though.

DISD has a lot of poor kids. When compared to districts with similar populations of poor kids, DISD is doing pretty well and is much better under Miles. Outcomes for rich kids in DISD have always been pretty good, even though most rich (and middle class) parents don’t bother enrolling in the district, perhaps because of all the bad press, and perhaps because of all those poor kids. (See this insightful email from a new middle class DISD parent who talks about the hush hush support for DISD from other middle class parents). From my perspective, then, the district’s major challenge is getting middle class outcomes for poor kids. If that happens, the news coverage probably won’t be so bad, and the middle class won’t think DISD stinks as much. And our kids will be a lot better off.

From my personal perspective — a middle class parent whose kid went through DISD — the district provides a pretty solid experience. But from my perspective as a citizen of Dallas, we simply must get better outcomes for kids from our neediest families, since that is 89 percent of the student population in the district. Our outcomes for those kids really do stink.

Given this, when I hear negative comments about DISD and think seriously about the specific areas in which DISD does stink, I really don’t think it’s because of lousy teachers. I’ve personally seen some really good ones, even though I know some are lousy. I don’t think it’s lousy principals. I’ve personally seen really good ones, even though I know some are lousy. I don’t think it’s the people in the administration. I know too many incredibly smart, hard-working people in the DISD administration. I’m sure some aren’t that great, but honestly it’s been years since I’ve met a director in DISD who isn’t five times smarter than I am.

Instead, I think it has much more to do with broken central bureaucratic processes, like those cited by the HR Commission several years ago, and like those cited by Miles soon after he got here. And of course I think about the school board. Because the board always has members that seem to really suck the life out of the district, working to prevent any changes to fix that central bureaucracy, improve campuses, or otherwise better serve poor kids.

I’m not alone in my disdain for certain DISD board members. Former trustee Carla Ranger has gone on at great length many times about how bad her fellow trustees are for the district, including complaints about trustees Nutall, Blackburn, Morath — all of ’em, really.

Which leads me to the following observation: If I talk to the typical voter in District 6 (southwestern Dallas), they think their board member is great, but those North Dallas board members are just awful. If I talk to the typical voter in District 2 (which surrounds Highland Park), they think their board member is great, but those southern Dallas board members are just awful. We all think the school board is terrible – it is perhaps the only education issue where we have near unanimous agreement throughout the city. We just all disagree on who the culprits are, and why.

This leads to one fix, time and time again: secession. There are communities in our city that don’t trust each other. They elect representatives accordingly, leading to dysfunction at the top. Those residents, witnessing that dysfunction, are reinforced in the opinion that they’d be better off running things in their own communities by themselves. To hell with the rest of town.

I don’t think this dysfunction at the top has to be the case. Yes, yes, I know it has been the case for at least the past two decades. But it doesn’t have to be. I believe home rule could change the game for those at the top, and that could lead to a significant reduction in that dysfunction. (Elimination is probably asking for a unicorn.) Things like board accountability, impeachment, and more would help transform the board into something that adds value for our educators rather than takes it off the table. Even if these changes don’t mitigate dysfunction at the top, bypassing that dysfunction is also an option: (One idea I’ve seen for home rule would be to specifically encourage the creation of semi-autonomous zones within the district.)

But home rule as a legal option appears to be on the slow boat. If a home rule charter is not presented and adopted anytime soon, is splitting up the district really the next best option, as Villalba suggests?

There are several pros and cons to splitting up the district. The rundown:

Pros to Splitting the District:

Less focus on compliance: As any organization gets larger, it has to adopt policies to standardize operations. These procedures protect it from large problems developing, but they also prevent it from doing things that might be good on a case-by-case basis. Consider the sports scandal that recently rocked DISD. To address problems with coaches, Miles implemented a policy requiring all coaches (who are paid first and foremost as teachers) to be certified teachers. Several of them weren’t. This seems like a great idea. But what about the case where a school has a fantastic coach (in the broadest sense of the word) who isn’t a certified teacher? Sorry, rules are rules. The bigger the organization is, the harder it is to make nimble decisions. This doesn’t mean a smaller DISD would be more nimble. It just means there’s a bit less pressure focused on compliance.

Fewer bureaucratic failures: Big organizations like Dallas ISD have multiple internal bureaucracies: budget planning staff, maintenance staff, information systems, as well as the staff to support them. Many functions are designed to deliver services in a fair way to a lot of users within the district. Often, given the lack of any competitive force working to keep that bureaucracy small and focused on delivering good results to internal users, these bureaucracies just work poorly. That seems to be the case at least with HR and IT departments in the years prior to Miles’ arrival (or so I’ve been told), although both areas are getting better. (Witness the teacher vacancy success of HR.) Smaller organizations can still have lousy internal bureaucracies, but they tend to be smaller, and so a bit less likely to store bloat.

More neighborhood control: I put this in as a pro, because America, but it’s also a con, as you’ll see below. To the pro argument:  Let’s assume we split DISD into four districts, in quadrants like northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast. Those parts of town would elect leadership to the newly independent boards, and they get to push for the kinds of changes they want in their neighborhoods without trying to get buy-in from other parts of town. They also don’t have to worry about resources getting syphoned off to other parts of town. This is a view I’ve heard championed by a lot by people who seem radically opposed to each other on other issues of school reform. Joyce Foreman constantly talks about the need for more resources in District 6. Bernadette Nutall constantly talks about the need for her schools to be run the way her community thinks they should be run. The White Rock ISD people say the same thing. This seems appealing to a lot of people.

Less of a media piñata: The most dysfunctional ISD in all of North Texas is not one you’ve heard of. It’s a tiny ISD far north of Dallas. (Again, a post I’ll have for you next week.) But even though it’s an amazing story, it doesn’t matter because Dallas ISD is so large it sucks the air out of the room in terms of coverage. It’s the biggest game in town, so it gets the most media attention. Think of a story like the following made up one: Dallas ISD suddenly has 60 teacher vacancies come January! Sounds like a lot. But that’s .06 percent, or the equivalent of maybe two vacancies in Highland Park. But it sure does sound like a lot to the average reader, and so it gets reported as a big deal. Similarly, a story on some $300,000 spending item seems like a lot of money until you consider that’s about $2 per student. If you split the district up, the scale of the districts’ finances becomes more understandable to the average person. The coverage is spread out. There are more apples-to-apples comparisons that can be made between the four districts. People will have a better understanding of what is and isn’t a big deal.

Cons of Splitting the District:

Some building renovation could halt: The district’s budget is complicated, but you can think of it in two primary categories: operations and buildings. Splitting up the district will have no effect on funding available for operations, because the state’s funding system is based on the number of kids enrolled. If you’re in a property-poor district, the state makes up the difference. No worries there. But if you want to renovate a building, or build a new school, you have to go to the voters and issue bonds. Those are entirely funded from local property taxes. Depending on how the newly created independent districts are formed, some of them wouldn’t be able to raise enough money to cover needed renovations. I suppose this could be fixed with a program that transfers bond funds from the wealthier baby districts to the poorer baby districts, but it would be complicated and unpopular, trust me. Without that, you’d have a situation similar to the Wilmer-Hutchins ISD scenario. Recall, the old Wilmer-Hutchins schools basically just deteriorated over time. Once WHISD was merged into DISD, DISD rebuilt from scratch several of those old schools, using bond money pulled from property taxpayers in all of DISD. We should fear this.

Student achievement inequality could increase: If we had four new school districts where DISD once was, it would mean we have more locally controlled schools than we do now. Four different boards, with more people from those neighborhoods serving on them. That was listed as a pro above. But this is really a con. The reason: Improving outcomes for kids in schools is so damn hard. It takes real leadership, and it takes community capacity to support that leadership. It takes expertise. Passion alone doesn’t cut it. If the community doesn’t have people that can spend time and money working to build support for the schools — and they go about it the right way — then urban schools don’t really work all that well. In places where you see community control of schools imposed as a policy from the top, they can’t get enough interest from parents and the community to participate. This is very different from places where the community has grown the capacity organically and taken over control of schools. What I mean is, in communities where there is enough of what the educator eggheads call civic capacity to engage and help lead, student outcomes grow. But in places where there isn’t capacity in the community to produce leadership for the schools, the schools falter. So if we split the district, we would see this play out writ large, and with it, we would likely see a widening achievement gap among our students. Certain parts of town with a solid middle class base — parents who have the luxury of time to devote to said district — will see real engagement with boards a bit more focused on developing leadership for the schools. Other communities that lack that middle class capacity likely won’t see the same kind of leadership, and those schools will lack any major push to raise student outcomes. Wilmer-Hutchins is another illustrative example here. That school district ended up completely bankrupt, financially and academically. Yes, they had a pretty poor property tax base, but there was also a lot of mismanagement, because there wasn’t enough slack civic capacity in Wilmer and Hutchins to regularly produce boards that could address those issues. There were good leaders there, just not enough of them. It takes a critical mass. Which is why WHISD was forcibly merged into DISD. The same could happen with one of the newly created independent school districts – if it fails in the same way as WHISD (or North Forest ISD, recently merged into Houston ISD) – TEA will just merge them back together, and we’ll be right back where we started.

I know it sounds like I’m forgainst it. Granted, there are interesting arguments either way. On balance, though, I worry about splitting up the district. It could help a lot of kids, but it could hurt a lot of kids that need the most support possible. If the board is completely dysfunctional like it was throughout the 1990s, I’d say go for it. Despite my blog-style haranguing — often driven my desire for everyone to do things my way damnit — there is a large contingent on this board trying to make substantive strategy improvements that can lead to effective reform in the district, and that’s why splitting DISD right now brings too much risk. If we’re able to restructure the governance system of DISD via home rule in a way that minimizes the current level of dysfunction we have, then the decision is a no brainer – keep the district together. Which I guess is my long-winded takeaway: Pursuit of this option really depends on how dysfunctional the board is – which really depends on all of us (via home rule), I suppose.

FASCINATING CODA ALERT: The district could stay unified but set up outcomes-based mini-districts within it, through district charters. This is a very interesting idea, one recently floated my way that I’m still noodling/bouncing off people, and one that the Home Rule Commission should probably consider. Okay, fine. I’ll take that up in a future post, too.

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