If All the Home Rule Commission Accomplishes is Some Dialogue, It Has Failed

If the commission doesn't write a charter, its recommendations will be largely ignored

Pass-Fail

The DMN‘s Tawnell Hobbes has a good recap of Monday’s Home Rule Commission meeting.

In it, she outlines the various arguments commissioners are making now that they’ve spent six months gathering information from the community as to what sort of charter should be written. These fall into three categories:

1. Don’t write a charter, don’t do anything, everything is fine just the way it is. This is the line taken by the status-quo crowd, a few dozen of whom attended and spoke at most HRC meetings. (Never mind that HRC chairman Bob Weiss, at the first community meeting, implored the professional naysayers and proponents of the home rule process to speak only once, at one meeting. Of course, everyone ignored this because adults are, on the whole, fairly sickening.) Commissioner Marcus Ranger suggested this path, because of course of he did. I could have told you he would say that the moment he was announced to the commission. Hell, he said it before and during the “community listening” process.

2. Don’t write a charter, but do write a series of suggestions to the school about what should be done. As examples of cowardice and abdication of your responsibility go, this path is relatively harmless. At least the school board will have to comment publicly on the board’s recommendations, even though I could pretty much go down the expected list and tell you how the board as a whole — and the individual trustees — will ignore all but the most innocuous of them. (Quality universal pre-K support and a student trustee are the only locks.) Remember, the board is under NO obligation by law to do anything with any recommendations brought to it, save put a charter on the ballot. And that’s why it’s fairly irritating that the commission would take this face-saving route. The collective rationalization behind this approach is something like this: Look, we spent a lot of time learning absolutely nothing new. We heard a lot of strong opinions from people — people whose opinions were already largely known to us. And we decided that we should put it in the hands of trustees, who are elected by 500 or so voters, rather than execute the will of 47,000 voters who signed a petition hoping it would lead to substantive reform. Instead, let’s just make a wish list and hope for the best. Mission accomplished.

3. Do write a charter with only a few changes to the current one, like calling for quality universal pre-K and a student trustee. This isn’t said explicitly, but you can read between the lines and see that would be the extent of a charter. While these are fine, they’re the equivalent of saying you are strongly in favor of love. Anything even remotely controversial or that could have lasting effects — like a move to November elections for trustees, expulsion for trustees, or mayoral involvement — wouldn’t make this commission’s list for a vote.

So what does all this mean? Well, for one it means that if things go in January as it appears they will, this commission, for all its back-slapping, was a colossal waste of time.

I know they don’t feel that way, and many will be insulted I say that. Because many if not all the commissioners have been saying, in public and in private, that they feel as though this process has, if nothing else, furthered the conversation about education reform in Dallas. They’ve probably all said this, but here’s an example from Tawnell’s story:

Some commissioners believe that information the group has received has sparked needed discussion about the district. Commissioner Ron Oliver, who is also a DISD teacher, said people are feeling like they have a say.

“I think we’ve given people a belief that everyone’s voice matters,” Oliver said. “I think we’ve opened some doors and opened some eyes to things that weren’t possible before we formed.”

In fact, I think I’ve said the very same thing to various educators. “At least we’re talking about it,” I would say. Or something like that. I may have said something like this at the home rule panel I moderated a few months ago.

Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I think I was wrong. They are wrong. We have not been talking about it enough. The same damn people have been talking about education reform — the reformers, the status quo crowd, the teachers, the loudest squeaky-wheel parents. You think these people weren’t already talking about education? Look, I went to a holiday party last week with some of these folks. We talked no sex, no drugs, no D’Angelo. We talked TEI and teacher evaluations, ACP tests, and teacher communication strategies. And several of us were drunk. Folks, these people are obsessed with talking about education. They are smart and boring and thank goodness most are married already, because seriously.

You know who is not talking enough about this in a smart, purposeful, issue-oriented way? Everyone else. You know what would drive a ton of mainstream coverage of these issues so that more people joined the conversation? A vote. Home Rule Commissioners: If you really want to be change agents, put these issues to the voters and let them decide. Because there will be an avalanche of talk about it. Folks in every sector of the city will spend months debating it in person, in social media, on the airwaves.

If the Home Rule Commission does not write a charter, I think several of these initiatives will be taken up by the state. I think a few may be championed by the school board. But as I’ve written a million times, that is actually LESS democratic than seeing this charter process through. For those folks who say they’re executing the will of the people by doing nothing, why don’t you put up or shut up: Put it out for a vote when we can get 25 percent of the electorate to the polls. And let’s see what the result is.

But there’s no way that will happen. There are many well-meaning commissioners on this body, but too many are influenced by a group of folks who know a reasonable home rule charter would get overwhelming support in a citywide vote.

So the Home Rule Commission as a whole must be judged not by its good intentions or the intelligence of its members, but by its outcomes. If that outcome is nothing, you fail. You don’t fail a test. You fail kids. But at least you talked about it.

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