The Trojan Horse Argument and Those Who Distrust Local Democracy

Being against home rule is about being for democracy, not against it

trojanhorse
The mystery is gone. In the immortal phrase of Steve Jobs, we have “opened the kimono” so that we can now all see what had been hidden. Last month, Support Our Public Schools presented a full blown charter to the Home Rule Commission. It’s up to the commission now to parse through it and decide whether they want to adopt a charter or just throw up their hands.

The anti-home rule crowd — sample: “Eric [Celeste] … is wrong on Home Rule!” trustee Dan Micciche wrote recently on Facebook — is still throwing out the same arguments against a charter. For example, the allegation that the entire process is illegitimate because it was “conceived in secrecy.” I’m not sure where that comes from. A draft charter was presented by a small group about six months ago, and featured in local media. Another draft charter was just presented at a public meeting, and is now readily available through local media, as noted above. The HRC is a body that is required to meet in public has final say over all the components of the charter, and it can’t possibly make that decision in secret. If this is a secret operation, it’s one that has all the stealth of a gorilla humping an elephant.

But those arguments are not taken seriously be any one neutral to this process. The lingering argument against home rule that can’t seem to die can be summed up in two words: Trojan horse.

The reality is that the SOPS proposal is really pretty uncontroversial. It includes real reforms to the school board that are pretty easy for many to get behind: term limits, recall elections, an independent redistricting commission, and so forth. Almost all of the stuff in the SOPS charter is actually already in the City of Dallas home rule charter, which I’ve discussed at length, so we’re not talking about a radical break with democracy. I would be willing to bet good money (your good money; I’m a broke writer) that if you put out a poll neutral Dallasites whether they support the SOPS proposal line by line, you’d get overwhelming majorities to support each item. But when you bundle it and call it “home rule,” that may be a different story. This is not unlike what happens when you ask people their take on individual health care reforms and then ask if they like Obamacare. (Was the “Trojan horse” argument used against Obamacare? Of course!)

But the anti-home rulers never really talk about the merits of any specific governance reform element. They want to kill the infant in its crib. That’s a losing proposition. So they break out the Trojan horse scare tactic.

This is the argument: Sure, this SOPS home rule proposal seems pretty reasonable. But once the district goes home rule, who knows what can happen next? Probably all these horrible things! Because — and you’d better sit down and pour yourself an end-of-times whiskey before you read this — the home rule charter can be AMENDED.

That’s right. As in “to amend.” From the Latin word emendare, meaning “make amends; to correct; to restore.” That is the horror we’re discussing here.

The suggestion here is that through this amendment process, the evil billionaire overlords who seek to monetize children will be able to put in place their decade-in-the-making dastardly plan to overtake our schools, tie damsels to train tracks, and possibly twirl mustaches in a super-villiany fashion.

This is, of course, nonsense.

First, let’s talk about the amendment process. Let’s say the HRC actually does what 47,000 Dallasites asked them to do and write a charter. And let’s say that charter is put to a vote, as it must be, and that more than 25 percent of the electorate votes on the amendment, as it must to pass. Then let’s further say that the new home rule charter passes by popular vote, meeting those thresholds.

Now, let’s say someone wants to later amend the home rule charter. Any amendment to the charter must be presented to the voters as a specific itemized amendment. So let’s think of a horrible amendment: “The school system cannot offer lunch or breakfast to any child.” Once again, voters will have to see that exact language on a ballot. Once again, a majority of them will have to vote yes. And once again, at least 25 percent of all registered voters in Dallas ISD will have to show up to vote. Only then would the amendment take effect.

Mind you, that election isn’t going to be a surprise to anyone. The amendment has to be posted in public at all the schools and at DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue. I’d certainly put it up on Learning Curve. The newspapers would cover it. The school board would have to vote to approve the election language at least three months prior to election day. Everyone is going to know that some unseen Mr. Burns has proposed to starve all Dallas ISD children. The anti-everything crowd will mount a ferocious “Vote No” campaign, as will the proponents of whatever amendment has been suggested. The DMN editorial board will weigh in on it, as it does on all ballot measures.

Does this sound like a Trojan horse? It sounds like your standard everyday policy horse that we beat into submission after months of debate. In fact it is the very essence of normal, boring, everyday Democracy.

This isn’t some theoretical exercise. The City of Dallas just passed all but one of nine suggested amendments to its home rule charter. Of note: the amendment the voters killed was relatively harmless — it involved an innocuous change related to the city’s thoroughfare plan — but voters killed it because they didn’t like the specific ballot language that was proposed. They thought it was too confusing. So you don’t have to worry about stuff getting sneaked past the voters. They pay attention, and they’ve shown that it’s hard enough for even good ideas (the DMN had advocated for passage of all nine amendments) to get approved when the ballot language isn’t squared away.

We all know the policies that people are trying to prevent. There’s a vocal group in town that is opposed to charter schools (for reasons that give me tired heard, but we’ll get to that some day). So they don’t want this home rule charter as some way to sneak in charter schools. There’s a group in town that wants protection for minority contracting. And they don’t want that to go away. (The SOPS proposal specifically enshrines minority contracting protections into the governance charter. My take on this is actually more complicated, but in general, sure, I’m for setting aside district dollars for minority contractors.) There’s a group that wants to make sure teachers keep the ability to use a built-in grievance process to make it harder for them to get fired. There’s a group that wants to maintain single-member districts.

The thing is, any amendments that touched on those hot-button issues would set in motion a firestorm of opposition before the Trojan horse even left the barn. It’s also why the rome rule charter proposed by SOPS does none of those things. But that’s not good enough for the anti-home rulers. They want to make sure that those things are never change, even if a majority of DISD voters some day decided they want these things. The anti-home rulers want to prevent those things FOREVER.

I don’t know how to do that. The legislature is meeting in a few months, and they could very well change public school throughout the state, making every school a charter, eliminating all local school boards, introducing vouchers, and who knows what else. I’m not commenting on the pluses or minuses of any of those policies. I’m just saying we live in a democracy. Rules are set by those in power, who are influenced by groups that support and oppose them. Home Rule or no, rules can change in the future. (I’ve confirmed this with Loopers.)

Ultimately, the Trojan horse argument says that we don’t trust voters in Dallas ISD to make the best decisions for kids. We would rather place our trust in the legislature in Austin. Because if we are a home rule district, local voters would have a FAR bigger say in how the district works compared to the state legislature. Apparently, that is unacceptable to the anti-home rulers.

There is actually some reason to think this. We were a segregated school district entirely because of local voters. It took a court order to desegregate the system. But I have more faith in democracy than the anti-home rulers. One of them once told me: “Democracy is messy, isn’t it, Eric?” I don’t think she understood the irony of her position. Because she was advocating for a position that quite boldly asserts that our local electorate can’t be trusted.

That is nonsense. The SOPS proposal is solid, well thought-out, and based on research that I’ve cited extensively. (It doesn’t go as far as I would, but I’m a governance-change radical.) It will improve the school board. And that will improve outcomes for kids. And the idea that writing a home rule charter would open the front gates and allow some Trojan horse takeover is a paranoid fantasy.

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