With the news that Dallas ISD will ask voters to approve a tax hike in November, the most important election of my lifetime has somehow become even more so. On Friday, when it was announced that DISD trustees will soon discuss a 13-cent increase and the required Tax Ratification Election, or a TRE, the first reaction from a lot of people was: “Seriously?” The idea being that property taxes are already going up so much that the middle class feels like it’s being stretched pretty thin.
You are, and that feeling is totally understandable. Which is why it’s so crucial that you understand three things:
1. The structure of this tax increase is very innovative, giving voters the opportunity to line-item their votes, and putting measures in place that will allow voters to sunset the tax increases in six years if student improvement metrics aren’t met.
2. Texas property taxes may be the fifth-highest in the nation, but your school district tax rate is shockingly low. Don’t conflate the two. It’s why the district needs money, and it’s why hundreds of districts around the state are asking for or preparing to ask for TREs themselves. More than half (28 of 55) of the area ISDs have recently passed TREs, and 24 of those approved the maximum $1.17 tax rate per $100 of value, which is the maximum allowed by state law. (For example, Frisco ISD is also asking for a 13-cent raise in its TRE vote next month.)
3. The money will be used to support high-quality pre-K, teacher pay, and early college programs. The benefits of each of these programs/initiatives is significant to students, parents, neighborhoods, and the city at large.
Those of you who’ve been paying attention were not surprised to hear DISD is asking for this. I first wrote about the looming specter of a TRE two years ago when I didn’t believe a bond could pay for the entirety of the district’s facility needs. I was wrong, as voters approved a $1.6 million bond package.
But Hinojosa told me last year that if the district supported the bond with a 60-percent yes vote, he could come back and ask for a TRE to fund the programmatic aspects of the Comprehensive Plan former Superintendent Mike Miles put together to guide DISD’s reform. It passed with 60 percent. So now Hinojosa and his staff, after putting their own stamp on the proposal, are putting three separate tax increases to voters, each to pay for a specific program, each of which can be voted on separately:
5 cents for expansion of quality early childhood, including full-day funding to serve all 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds on a full-day basis who are eligible for half-day state funding due to their income or English language learner status. (Many would be served in partnership with private providers who have sufficient classroom space and seats.) This aligns with the Comprehensive Plan.
4 cents for higher teacher pay, primarily to give incentive pay (aka, bonuses) to the district’s best teachers to relocate to turn around schools rated Improvement Required (i.e., they’re in bottom 10 percent of the state). It would also be added to the general pay pool to reward the best teachers regardless of where they teach. This is a new initiative that comes about because of the initial success of the teacher evaluation and feedback model (called Teacher Excellence Initiative, or TEI), which has helped identify the best teachers in the system, and because of the success of the ACE program, which incentivizes those teachers to teach at our most troubled schools.
4 cents to expand early college and career programs across the district. The goal here would be to attack DISD’s current 21-percent, six-year college completion rate.
I won’t go into a deep research dive on each of these, but here’s a quick graph on each:
Pre-K: Understand that nothing is inarguable in education research. If you want to find a study that marries your worldview, you can find one. But the preponderance of evidence from government, nonprofit, and research institutions shows enormous educational, economic, and social benefits when high-quality full-day pre-K programs are put in place — especially for our neediest kids. (People will sometimes try to argue with you about this, even educators. If they mention “Tennessee study,” just yell, “NOT HIGH-QUALITY! NEXT!” and move on.) In fact, expanded pre-K has already showed success in Dallas. Area kids who go through it are twice as likely to be kindergarten ready, three times more likely to be reading on grade level in the third grade, and those kids are four times less likely to drop out. It’s especially important that we step up and fund this, because the State Legislature last session gave so little money to fund its new pre-K plan that districts all over the state are turning the money down because they know it won’t be enough to meet the basic requirements under the plan. (If you’d like a test case of the transformative power of pre-K to a large urban district, see what has happened in Washington, D.C.)
Teacher pay: Because of TEI, teacher pay has gotten better in recent years — starting pay is $50,000, or $6,000 more than average starting pay for cops in Dallas. But this money would go toward paying the best teachers more to retain them, and to giving them an incentive to teach at our neediest schools (those labeled Improvement Required by the state). That is crucial because of high teacher turnover throughout the country and dissatisfaction with pay. Nearly half the teachers in the country say they would leave the profession if they could find work that paid more. The extra money here helps alleviate that somewhat, and it goes to a pilot program that is working. At the seven (out of 37) IR schools where the ACE program was instituted, ALL of them had double-digit gains in either reading or math, as well as 30 percent more students reading on grade level in first and second grades. Six of the seven pilot schools will probably come off the state’s IR list after just one year, after having been rated an IR school by the state for four straight years or more. That is astounding success that needs to be replicated.
College and Career Readiness: This is the area where I’m afraid some of you will say, “Wait, isn’t, you know, SCHOOL supposed to make them college and career ready?” I get that. It’s a funny argument. It doesn’t reflect the real-world situation here. First, understand the shift in DISD’s thinking the past few years. It has gone from a place where the goal was to make every student college ready to one where the goal is to give every student the tools to earn a living wage. That is a profound shift, one necessitated by the crushing poverty of the district and the achievement gap that comes with teaching poor kids. (There are a million studies confirming this relationship. Here’s one released just this past week.) It means they need programs that will get kids ready for college and ones that will get them ready to enter the workforce, specifically the work force in their neighborhoods and city. This is how it benefits all of us, as it’s crucial we build an educated labor force for Dallas-area business. (They have skin in this game, remember: 58 percent of the tax increase monies will come from them.) So the CTE facilities you passed in the bond were one component of this, designed to teach kids skills to get them jobs. The other is the expansion of the early college program, which this will fund. This program allows kids to work toward an associate’s degree while they are in high school earning their diploma. The early college programs put in place already have resulted in kids twice as likely to earn a degree in six years, and these early college courses have been wildly popular with kids and parents. To date, the program has had twice as many applicants as it can hold.
Are there concerns? Yes, some legitimate. Without bogging down in the byzantine nature of Texas school funding, one problem is that the district, because of declining or stagnating enrollment, is paying more money back to the state under the Robin Hood plan. For example, according to the architects of the TRE, DISD will get to keep about $104 million of the $128 million raised annually by the TRE if all initiatives get approved, because the state will “recapture” a cool $24 million every year. The argument for doing this anyway is the idea that by investing in DISD, you’re making it more attractive to those thinking about leaving the district and those considering entering it. This can, in theory, keep the district from having to give some or all that money to the state.
There will be complaints about this TRE from the same old sources. I look forward to seeing how they campaign against helping 3- and 4-year-olds, teachers, and kids who want to go to college. You may think, “Oh, that will be impossible to argue against!” Please. They don’t call ’em the status quo for nothing. They will find some catchy populist slogan to sell to those unwilling to see merit in anything that comes from DISD, no matter what the proposal is or who is pitching it. And if priors are any indication, they will offer no reasonable alternative.
Most of you are much smarter than that. You realize, I’m sure, that it’s incredibly important to approve the TRE even if money is tight, even if we have to give a big chunk of that to the state. Consider the latter a tax on us for electing stupid people to the Lege who can’t get school funding right. Consider the former the price we must pay to reverse decades of monetary neglect in DISD, a place we’ve long sent as little money as possible to educate our kids who need the most help. That’s the bottom line here.
Someone on Twitter (Clay Shirky, for those keeping score) recently said that, in the larger political landscape, too many of us are bringing fact-checkers to a culture war. In other words, you win votes by appealing to the heart, not the mind. If that’s the case, here’s my appeal to your heart: this is money needed for nearly 160,000 kids, kids who because of their poverty levels need the most innovative, wraparound approaches to education. The suburbs get this, which is why they’re doing the same thing. Businesses get this, which is why they’re all in on these efforts to better educate the area’s next-gen workforce. We owe it to these kids to give them every chance at a life full of the opportunities a decent education grants us all.