Why This Dallas School Board Election Is Pivotal

DISD is making progress. But with four open trustee seats that could come to an end if voters don’t show up.

On May 7, four Dallas ISD trustees will be elected (one possibly re-elected). Most likely, turnout will be low, as it always is for May elections. Last year a trustee won a seat with 2,106 votes. But that election featured high-profile local races, including one for mayor, that drew people to the polls. The year before, 2014, a trustee won with just 515 votes. That’s all it takes to be put in the position of overseeing about 20,000 employees who oversee nearly 160,000 kids.

Which is why we usually end up with a handful of buffoons on the board. It’s why we shake our heads when said trustees appear on TV, railing about parochial concerns that have little to do with educating those kids. It’s why DISD for decades has been a joke to many Dallas residents.

But here’s a little secret: for three years the DISD board has been really good. Buffoons remain, but despite what you may see or read, the board as a whole has found ways to make DISD one of the more progressive, reform-minded urban districts in the country. The list of wins pushed or supported by the school board is impressive: TEI, the merit-pay system for teachers, is one of the most innovative in the country and helped push out 55 percent of the lowest-rated teachers in the district while rewarding the best with more money; two school facility financing plans helped support an emphasis on more choice schools to compete better with high-quality charters; a program to put the best teachers at the worst schools to help kids who need it the most has shown some early success; smarter and more aggressive pre-K policies were codified; mandatory recess was reinstated; and in late April the board will have, one hopes, finally done the right thing and centralized administration operations to get staff out of their decrepit buildings.

If the candidate is talking about budgets, or working as a team, or eliminating drama, he or she cares about politics, not kids. 

With these and many other initiatives taking root, DISD could finally start to show widespread progress, right?

Perhaps. But only if we don’t elect more buffoons (or—worse, in some ways—smart people who won’t stand up to buffoons). That’s why I hope voters take this election seriously, so we don’t take a huge step backward as a school district and as a city.

To better understand why this election is so crucial, I need to take you to a bar called Eight Bells Alehouse. This was during evening hours, in early March. It was the first of three nights on which Bar Politics—a monthly, live, issue-focused Daily Show-style performance—did shows about DISD. Being interviewed was a local buffoon. His name is not important. He’s basically a professional internet commenter. What’s important is what he said.

This person threw out some insanely bogus statistics to suggest DISD was cratering. He said DISD had gone from 11,000 teachers last year to 9,000 this year (actually about 10,600 to about 10,500). He said 30 percent of DISD teachers were first-year teachers (actually about 12 percent, which is still too high, but DISD’s average teacher experience, 10.5 years, is on par with Coppell and higher than Richardson, Grand Prairie, Fort Worth, and many others). He said DISD was saving $100 million on teacher salaries (actually the district is paying those 10,500 teachers $27 million more in salary, thanks to the merit-pay system). And so forth.

Making up numbers is garden-variety buffoonery. It’s easy enough to defeat using real data. But the person crossed a line when he claimed that the reason DISD’s students aren’t performing up to their level is because of the socioeconomic makeup of the district. “We don’t have a teacher problem,” he said. “We have a poverty problem.”

That is wrong. It’s a dangerous idea. And you have to vote for people who are sophisticated enough to know why it’s wrong and who have enough steel to reject those who believe it.

Why is this wrong? It’s complicated, because poverty plays a huge role in education. Every large urban district has a poverty problem. Study after study correlates poor test results to poverty. Of course poverty impacts kids. But the best districts, schools, and teachers never use this as an excuse. The best school districts across the world, the ones that produce the highest-achieving kids, all refuse to lower their expectations for kids based on race or class. So quality school systems accept the challenge, and they control what they can control: teacher quality and pay, by far the most important factors in a student’s academic success; the leadership of a school and the support systems that ensure those leaders focus on instruction, not operations; how early educators reach a child; whether students have teachers who speak their language; and the types of schools offered. Then those quality school systems offer poverty-specific programs and wraparound services to combat problems not of their making—which DISD is doing. For example, DISD is working with the city to reform archaic housing and urban planning policies that reduce the chance for a healthy socioeconomic mix in schools.

What all that means is that demographics are not destiny. As long as we don’t put in place people who give voice to the buffoons.

How then, when you look at these four races for DISD trustee seats, can you tell who has the steel and who is susceptible to buffoonery? It’s hard. In every race, candidates say basically the same things. “I’m going to focus on kids. I support teachers. We’re going to be fiscally responsible.” Here are some tips, then, to help you make your decision.

Tip No. 1: make sure your trustee doesn’t say things like “I have been a [sic] advocate” or “a strong voice for it’s [sic] needs” on his campaign website. This eliminates Omar Jimenez in District 4.

Tip No. 2: if someone says her chief qualification is “I’m a parent,” don’t vote for that person. Would you vote for a person to run a hospital district if she said “I’m a frequent patient”? Of course not. This is difficult work. Take the role of trustee seriously enough to acknowledge these people must have a grasp of more than their little one’s classroom experiences. Being a parent in no way qualifies one to deal with the political and media scrutiny trustees must navigate. This eliminates Mita Havlick in District 2.

Tip No. 3: don’t vote for someone based on one issue. But you can decide not to vote for someone based on one issue. For example, I have a “no suggesting that trustee Joyce Foreman be elected board president” policy. Only one candidate has excluded herself based on this policy—Oak Cliff’s Audrey Pinkerton, in District 7. Do not vote for her.

Tip No. 4: don’t vote for incumbents who, despite a decent voting record, have spent 15 years as a trustee and haven’t ever advocated for meaningful, urgent, systemic, student-outcome-focused change. That eliminates Lew Blackburn in District 5.

Tip No. 5: ask yourself if the things the candidate says focus on improving student outcomes. If he or she is talking about budgets, or working as a team, or eliminating drama, those are often messages that suggest the candidate cares about politics, not kids. You’ll have to figure out yourself to whom this applies.

It’s fair to ask: “Are these races really that important? No matter how they come out, surely the district’s well-liked superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, will continue meaningful reform.” That was true when we had a very un-well-liked superintendent in Mike Miles. He was a change agent. But Hinojosa’s mantra is “Do not get fired.” He thinks it’s better to be a uniter than a divider, which is exactly the sort of shopworn aphorism that seems to guide his thinking. It’s why he will do anything to lubricate the squeakiest wheels on the board. His goal is to avoid controversy.

That means the advances of the past few years are very much in danger if we don’t elect a board that acts as a bully on behalf of meaningful reform. Trustees have secretly done a great job at this the past few years. It would be a shame if that work were undone by a few hundred wrongheaded votes.

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