In a blog post last week, I addressed what is perhaps the biggest philosophical issue in the home rule debate: school districts are not like other local government institutions in our democracy. They don’t exist because we’ve decided to come together and govern ourselves democratically. They exist to educate all children, period.
(Side note: This also came up during a 45-minute discussion yesterday after I’d moderated a home rule debate for the Dallas Assembly. A few vocal home rule opponents wanted to bend my ear, which is fine; part of the job. I enjoyed engaging in a — mostly — friendly argument about the merits of the process. But my key points always served to underline this fact: There is one overriding value for a school district, many competing values in most political discussions.)
This means that when we evaluate the actions of the district’s governing board, we should use a different filter than the one we use when evaluating city council members. It also means that as part of this home rule discussion, what we choose for the structure of the city council might not be appropriate for the school board.
Just because we’re focused on different outcomes, though, doesn’t mean we can’t learn ANYTHING from the city. The City of Dallas is itself a home rule city, and it has its own home rule city charter. If we’re going to write a home rule charter for Dallas ISD, there is some stuff we could learn from what we’ve already done at city hall.
Consider this nugget from the “Home Rule City of Dallas Charter Ch VI Sec 1”:
The city manager shall not be appointed for a definite fixed time, but shall be removable at the will and pleasure of the city council upon a two-thirds vote of the members of the council unless otherwise provided by contract.
That may seem like a small matter, but in practice it is a very important sentence. It represents a massive difference between Marilla Street and Ross Avenue that exists today. And it’s what DISD needs for the long term.
Idea No. 7: Two-thirds to Terminate
The Texas Education Code is long and detailed. It has sections on student discipline, testing, transportation, you name it. But perhaps the biggest section of the code is the section that deals with public school employees. Most of the attention is given to the employment of teachers. Now, Home Rule Commission chairman Bob Weiss said yesterday at the Dallas Assembly luncheon that, as of right now, he wants no discussion of changes to Chapter 21 in the home rule process, because it would kill the chance to discuss issues where there could be real compromise in terms of governance and educational outcomes. That’s because teachers are scared of losing protections currently in place. But I’m still going to make this suggestion, because it’s about a change not to teachers’ rights but to the the board’s ability to fire a superintendent.
That’s because this code also deals with the employment of said superintendent, who is treated as the same kind of employee as a teacher. The code requires a fixed term contract (not to exceed five years), and it requires all kinds of specific appeal procedures and a variety of other fairly convoluted employment rules (which I’ll probably write about in a future post). And the Texas Education Code states that the contract can be ended by a simple majority vote.
Contrast this set of rules with the fairly simple one adopted by Dallas’ charter. The city manager is employed at will. That employment can be terminated by a two-thirds vote.
What is the difference?
Well, consider this. Since 1994, Dallas ISD has had 10 superintendents. In that same time period, the City of Dallas has had four city managers. In fact, to get to 10 city managers, you have to go back to 1966. Average tenure? For DISD: two years. For the city: five. Two and a half times longer. Two and half times more continuity of leadership at the top of the city than the school district.
We sometimes see information relating to teacher longevity and its impact on students – with most everyone agreeing that a teacher’s effectiveness grows tremendously during the first three to five years. But for the position at the top of the school system – forget about it. They won’t make it that long.
Now you may be saying, sorry, but teachers and superintendents are very different in terms of their impact. Fair enough. Perhaps longevity at the top isn’t all that important. But I would counter in two ways: One, if you’re going to say that we should worry about teachers and not superintendents, one fascinating recent bit of research suggests they’re BOTH largely irrelevant to student outcomes, at least compared with poverty level and the student’s home life/makeup. I’ll have a full post on this study soon, because it’s EVERYTHING, as the kids say. But neither that study nor the idea that teachers are more important than administrators mean that superintendent longevity isn’t a good thing. As I’ve pointed out several times, this research notes that there is a correlation between superintendent longevity and student achievement. This isn’t causal. This doesn’t mean that superintendents who stay longer automatically raise student achievement more. It does mean that districts that place a value on stability at the top see better student outcomes than those that don’t.
That gets us back to home rule. The HRC can adopt a rule in the DISD charter that mirrors the rule in the city charter. This would likely improve stability at the top. That would likely mean our kids would see better outcomes.
The downside is that this change will make it harder to get rid of a superintendent. (Those of you who haven’t been fans of our last few city managers spotted this flaw immediately, I’m sure.) Let’s move beyond the point that we are already really good at getting rid of superintendents, so making it a little harder will just cause us to bring our “throw the bum out” game to an only marginally higher level. What if we really do have a bad superintendent who is lowering student outcomes? Well, consider bundling this provision with one that calls a special election in the event that student achievement declines. I wrote about this kind of board accountability provision before, and these two changes work together like PB & J. One provision encourages the board to dump a superintendent who lowers performance; the other makes it a bit harder to do so, ensuring that the board needs to be certain before they act, lest there be changes in the short term that really benefit the long term but that aren’t entirely noticeable yet. (Reform takes time to seed.)
After all, we do need some kind of stability at the top. Our kids are in from prekindergarten through 12th grade – 14 years. I wonder how different the district would be if our average superintendent lasted through one child’s entire educational cycle, so that they could see the full impact of their actions. I can only imagine our teachers would certainly feel better, as they wouldn’t be subjected to one set of reforms for a few years only to be hit by another set, and then another, and then another, and then another, until, well, here we are today. Hopefully the commission will alter the rules a bit so the present doesn’t become our future.