Mike Morath has a lot of enemies. That would seem odd, given that he’s a twice-elected Dallas ISD trustee who has never run opposed, he’s super-smart, and he’s passionate—obsessive, really—about helping poor kids learn. But for several reasons, chief among them that Morath was the seed crystal for the controversial home-rule initiative, he has many detractors, including some on the school board who share his education philosophies. They see him as an arrogant wonk who won’t listen to others. Morath says that a year ago, he wouldn’t have agreed to an interview for this story, because he wouldn’t have wanted to invite scorn from the other trustees. Now things are different. “They’re all mad at me for home rule,” he says, “so I guess it doesn’t matter.”
Heck, trustee Bernadette Nutall refused to sit next to him at the board’s horseshoe. (A badge of honor for Morath, really.) And for all intents and purposes, home rule is dead, at least in the way Morath originally envisioned it. The home-rule commission still has a year to deliberate and recommend action, but Morath’s vision—a new charter recommending board accountability measures, longer school years and days—won’t come to fruition anytime soon. Home rule won’t make the November ballot.
So Morath is isolated and ineffectual? Not at all. He’s still one of the two or three most influential backroom operators in education reform in Dallas. He remains in regular contact with legislators, big-money groups, and education think tanks all over Texas, championing his plan to fix DISD. Largely because of his efforts, the conversation in the city has moved from “Should we reform DISD?” to “How should we implement reforms?”
That’s why, despite Morath’s many enemies (the teachers’ unions hate him, too), those in favor of education reform in Dallas stand behind him and the other sane board members. The support is important. Morath has just begun the most crucial school year of his tenure, with board support needed for a revolutionary teacher merit pay system and sweeping early-education initiatives. Although he is wearied by those who’ve cast him as a tool of the moneyed class trying to take over school systems, Morath says he will keep up the fight for two reasons. One is obvious: 157,000 kids in DISD deserve better. The other, less so: he’s on a mission from God.
“Ahhhh, hell yeah,” Morath says, pointing toward speakers above us. “Any coffeehouse that rocks Wu-Tang is okay by me.”
It’s not fair to say that Morath, like Steve Martin’s character Navin Johnson, was born a poor black child, but it’s not that far off. Morath spent half of his first 10 years in a western Virginia coal-mining town. His parents did not believe that his Appalachian education would afford their boy a chance at a good life, and a lucky job transfer took them to North Texas. Before they moved, though, his mother called the Texas Education Agency to ask which was the best public school system in the state. The first 10 times, she was told that they were all great, and she didn’t believe it. Finally, she pestered TEA employees until someone in the agency was honest with her. Because of the district’s total choice and emerging baccalaureate program, Morath’s mom was told Garland was best.
“Garland has the longest experiment in school choice in the country,” Morath says. “It’s what they’re doing in New Orleans now. They took the lowest-performance schools and put a magnet program in each. Those schools were extremely diverse, with tremendous educational opportunities. I got an outstanding education in integrated classrooms, and it shaped my opinion on public schooling.”
In high school, Morath didn’t play football, but he sat with the coaches every Saturday morning because he’d written a software package that analyzed offensive tendencies. (He wrote his first computer program at 6.) The day after games, he would give the head coach and offensive coordinator printouts so they could study the team’s play-calling tendencies. “Needless to say,” he says, “Super Nerd was very popular with the cheerleaders.”
In college (George Washington, graduated in two and a half years), Morath’s integration continued. His black roommate convinced him to join Alpha Phi Alpha, a predominantly black fraternity. He worked as communications director for the black student union and its newsletter. His musical tastes already were in line. “I’m a white boy from the suburbs who grew up in the ’90s,” Morath says. “I know my Wu-Tang Clan.”
After graduation, he put his software skills to work. He started a dot-com in Garland that was a “catastrophic failure,” he says. “Flawed business model, undercapitalized, bad management.” His next business was more successful. He started a company that developed a management information system that streamlined a federal food program for low-income families in child care. He sold the company for a tidy sum and, at 36, became semi-retired. His next goal: searching for his special purpose. An evangelical Christian, Morath believed God would lead the way to this discovery.
He found his calling in a series of charitable acts. First he became a Big Brother to two Littles in DISD (which showed him the urban education struggle from the kids’ perspective), and then he participated in a leadership program that paired him with the principal from Thomas Jefferson High School (which showed him the challenges from inside the system).
“I just said, ‘That’s it,’ ” Morath says. “I’ve got to do what I can to improve outcomes for kids. Not just so they can read and write and do math, but so they’re prepared for lives with purpose. So they can have the same kind of success in America I’ve had.”
Morath over-prepared, of course. He attended board meetings and briefings and watched dozens more online. He studied education policy incessantly. He talked to teachers, parents, and principals. His takeaway? At every level, the biggest issue is trust.
“We’re one of the most segregated cities in the country, and we have one of the most segregated school systems,” he says. “That was policy. That was intentional. Dallas is moving away from that, correcting errors of its past, but we’re a long way from having that issue corrected. The only way to build up trust is a continuous commitment to doing so. That means going where you’re not wanted and having conversations with people who don’t agree with you. And doing that repeatedly. So that takes a relentless amount of work. I don’t know that I have done that effectively enough.”
Morath rattles off his weaknesses, the ones that give his enemies ammo. He is an entrepreneur executive at heart, which means he wants to fix problems, not have round-table discussions about them. He is impatient. He doesn’t like having to persuade 1,000 people which path is best when it’s so obvious to him. His poker face is poor at best. He often looks like he’s sucking on lemons during board meetings. “I have to be better about having the patience to bring people along,” he says, “and they have to trust I’m adapting my insights to their plans.”
That’s the thing that gets him: when critics say he doesn’t listen to anyone else.
“That’s a load of crap,” he says. “I’m extremely interested in all opinions. I seek out countervailing information. It’s the only way you can make a good decision. And the proof is there. We’ve moved mountains in the past two to three years. Now, there are many bigger mountains left to move. But the board as a whole has been pretty effective at making some sort of policy changes that benefit kids. I like to think I’ve had an important role.”
Even his many enemies would have to admit that.