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The Single Biggest Problem in Dallas

A Harvard-educated former Air Force intelligence officer moved to town and was shocked by what he saw: a hole in the middle of Dallas ISD.
By Eric Celeste |
John S. Dykes

Mike Koprowski had just begun a new job when he realized how broken Dallas is. It was 2014, and Koprowski, who had just turned 30, was a Harvard-educated whiz kid hired by Dallas ISD to run its new Office of Transformation and Innovation. The district’s veteran spokesman at the time, Jon Dahlander, asked Koprowski to come to his office. He’d seen district politics chew up smart, young, ambitious people, and he wanted to explain the lay of the land.

“What’s that?” Koprowski asked him.

“A map of the district,” Dahlander said.

“No, that. That hole in the middle.”

That hole, of course, was the Park Cities.

“I was stunned,” Koprowski says now. “I said, ‘So, it’s a separate school system, in the middle of this other school system?’ It was unreal to me. People in Dallas are just used to this now. But to an outsider, I just saw this map and realized the unbelievable segregation that exists within the system.”

Even as Koprowski helped establish lauded programs (Public School Choice) and innovative schools (Solar Preparatory School for Girls), he couldn’t stop thinking about that segregation. He looked at the network of organizations working on school reform—United Way, The Commit Partnership, dozens of others—and saw no such local leadership on housing issues. He read the growing field of research that confirmed a landmark 2010 study titled “Housing Policy Is School Policy.” And he came to believe that without changing the composition of the poor neighborhoods around the schools—without income integration—school reform likely wouldn’t work.

That’s why, in January 2017, Koprowski left DISD. So that he could better help kids in the district.

Recalling the famous Molly Ivins line, Koprowski says he may not have been born on third base, but certainly on second.

Last year, Koprowski founded Opportunity Dallas, a policy and advocacy group that works on affordable housing and segregation issues. In August, he convened a task force of 32 people from all backgrounds—real estate experts, developers, voucher holders, affordable housing advocates, urban planners—to make policy recommendations for the city. In February, the task force released 28 such recommendations, including nine immediate steps Dallas could and should take. All the policy recommendations can be categorized into four broad areas of action: get poor people to move into better areas (even if that just means less poor areas); get not-poor people to move into developing neighborhoods; put in safeguards to prevent over-gentrification in developing areas; and increase the affordable housing stock citywide.

It all echoes a message Koprowski has been preaching since he came to town. More than 30 percent of Dallas children live in poverty, a higher percentage than in almost any other large American city. Addressing that problem doesn’t just help the kids; it benefits the city. In releasing its recommendations, the Opportunity Dallas task force wrote: “According to research from [Stanford economics professor] Raj Chetty, when low-income children can access mixed-income areas, educational outcomes and college attendance improve; they’re more likely to get married and have children with a father present; they earn dramatically more income over their lifetime; and they pay more in income taxes and are less likely to be on assistance.”

This may sound like common sense, liberal do-gooder stuff you’ve heard before. A nonprofit gathers a group of concerned citizens, issues a report, puts the recommendations on a PowerPoint, everyone slaps each other on the back, and then we go build a signature bridge or something. But make no mistake: Opportunity Dallas is as unique as it is important.

Dallas has never, in its history, had a comprehensive housing policy. It has had housing programs, most of them ad hoc, almost all of them ineffectual. There has never been a champion of affordable housing in Dallas (although there have been a few council members, most notably Scott Griggs, who have at least called attention to the city’s lack of a real policy). This is a place where developers have traditionally said that if they could do a deal without the city’s involvement, that’s what they preferred to do. As opposed to, say, Seattle, where developers told Koprowski they would be foolish not to include the city, because its affordable housing incentives make deals better not only for the city, but for their bottom line.

What Opportunity Dallas and its task force were able to do, in just six months, is nothing short of astounding. They focused the leadership class on addressing systemic segregation, the racism that it was born of, the poverty that fueled it, and the lack of affordable housing that perpetuates it. “We wanted to show the city policymakers and staff that it’s not impossible to put together a thoughtful, effective housing policy,” says task force member Paula Blackmon, who has served as chief of staff to a Dallas mayor and a senior adviser to two DISD superintendents. “We showed it can be done, and it needs to be done.”

The recommendations were delivered to a City Council and staff that were expected, by the end of March, to put forth their official citywide affordable housing plan. The idea is that this group of stakeholders coming together with a shared vision will provide a blueprint for an effective, data-driven policy, as well as political cover for council members whose constituents often see urban planning and housing decisions through very different lenses.

“Mike understands how important it is we have this conversation about housing, even if it’s difficult to some people,” says Miguel Solis, the DISD trustee who chaired the task force (and who was a classmate of Koprowski’s at Harvard). “He also understands that the biggest challenge to school reform is helping kids with housing. And he understands that our housing crisis is a result of the compounding negative effects of man-made decisions in Dallas over decades. He was uniquely qualified to take on this task.”

When you start using that sort of language—“man-made decisions” in Dallas really means “wealthy white people”—a segment of the audience might get its dander up. It’s easy to say, “Hey, this is America, and, although we feel bad for those poor people, they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” Koprowski gets it. He used to think that way, too.

Recalling the famous Molly Ivins line, Koprowski says he may not have been born on third base, but certainly on second. He grew up in South Florida, the son of a lawyer mom and an accountant dad. “I had this simplistic notion that where you end up in life is a function of how hard you work,” he says. Then, at 22, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. “The cancer, that was the first time that reality smacked me in the head. That, oh, you don’t really always control your destiny. Sometimes circumstances find you.”

He witnessed the randomness of fate, as all soldiers do, while serving a tour of duty in Afghanistan in the Air Force. He also noticed that many of the young men and women fighting for their country didn’t come from money. After his service, Koprowski got his master’s degree in political science at Duke. He started reading more about how poverty can trap people. He became more socially aware. “I realized, well before I got to Dallas, that for most people, ZIP code is destiny.” From Duke he went to Harvard to study education, eventually finding his way to the job at DISD and then to Opportunity Dallas.

When the city announces its affordable housing policy, it will be interesting to see how it is influenced by the work of Opportunity Dallas. We already know the group was a bit too successful in one regard. Its efforts caught the eye of a Washington, D.C., group called Funders for Housing and Opportunity. The organization hired Koprowski to be its national campaign director.

But the work started by Opportunity Dallas will continue. Koprowski left the city with a blueprint for how to build smart housing policy. “At the end of the day, the responsibility falls squarely on city staff and elected council members to do this work,” he says. “We’ve articulated these major ingredients, and now at least people have a reference point for what their local housing policy can look like.”

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