Capitol Idea: 2020 is coming soon. Sean McCabe

Local News

How Dallas ISD’s Success Could Impact the State

Texas is in trouble. Luckily lawmakers in Austin know where to look for answers.

Texas lawmakers in 2011 cut $5.4 billion from the state’s public school funding, invoking that tired canard that more money doesn’t mean a better education. (Arguable, but an insufficient amount guarantees a bad one.) Eight years later, we’re coming to realize just how badly those lawmakers screwed up not only our kids’ education and, as collateral damage, how high they jacked up our property taxes.

Understand that one in 10 public school children in America is educated in Texas. In fact, Texas’ school-age population is the nation’s fastest growing, adding about 850,000 students in the past decade. Over the same period, the state cut public education spending by $2.5 billion (even after it tried to restore some monies cut in that 2011 massacre). How do those cuts manifest in student outcomes? Consider that in 2015, Gov. Greg Abbott announced his “60×30” goal: 60 percent of Texas adults ages 25 to 34 will attain a postsecondary degree by the year 2030. Right now, Texas is falling far short of that goal, with only 28 percent of high school graduates earning a credential within six years after their actual or scheduled high school graduation.

But wait! It gets worse! To make up for the shortfall, your property taxes have risen to pay for lawmakers’ negligence. In 2008, state and local taxpayers were nearly splitting the education bill 50–50. Now property taxes pay for more than 60 percent of education costs.

Voter fury over both realities—insufficient state funding, rising property taxes—will drive the No. 1 debate this legislative session, which began January 8. Austin will be abuzz with talk of school finance reform. And the starting point for every one of those discussions will be right here in Dallas. Our people and our school district just might have what it takes to save the great state of Texas from itself.

Many smart, hardworking people contributed to Dallas ISD’s reform success during the past five years or so, but three in particular—former superintendent Mike Miles, former DISD trustee Mike Morath, and Commit chairman Todd Williams—deserve the most credit. Miles, the former Army man, for taking the status quo’s slings and arrows as he fought to implement reforms; Morath, a Garland ISD graduate, for keeping Dallas in mind when he became Texas Education Agency commissioner; and Williams, a Bryan Adams High School graduate, for harnessing the data and focusing legislators on how they can scale the district’s success statewide.

Before the money comes the ideas. Here’s what DISD has done, the reforms that you’ll see rolled out across the state. They were put in place by Miles and continued under Michael Hinojosa, who both preceded and succeeded him.

  • High-quality early education (94 percent of DISD 4-year-olds enrolled; attendees are two times more likely to be kindergarten-ready and three times more likely to read proficiently in third grade.)
  • Teacher Excellence Initiative (More than 90 percent of teachers rated Proficient or Distinguished have remained in the district.)
  • Accelerating Campus Excellence (DISD reduced Improvement Required campuses by 91 percent since 2014, from 43 to four campuses, meaning 5,900 students now attend good schools that were once failing.)
  • Pathways in Technology Early College High School (Last year, the Hinojosa created program had 5,500 kids apply for 2,100 spots to work with more than 70 industry partners like Pepsi.)

That’s what state legislators will be looking at. For the most part, these programs were beta-tested at DISD without large budget increases. The real challenge was overcoming the politics of evaluating teachers with metrics rather than a calendar. Now those battles are a memory, and lots of people want to claim they were on the right side. “People have short memories,” Miles says from Colorado. “I read some of the comments now, and it does make me smile. ‘Wait a minute, that’s not the reception I saw when I was there!’ But, no, I’m thrilled people are looking at TEI and ACE. They just have to understand that the change needed is cultural first. Then you can implement and scale the programs.”

Once DISD wanted to scale its programs, it needed new funding. Its Pathways in Technology program alone required $30 million to launch over two years. Voters in Dallas took note of the state’s funding negligence, authorizing a property tax increase in a citywide vote last year that gave the district $126 million to fund its success.

But as the November election results and campaign polling showed, voters did this through gritted teeth. People in North Texas are sick of funding their schools with property tax increases, and they want the Legislature to do something about it. (Example: a Texas Tribune/University of Texas poll last summer showed only 16 percent of all voters approved of lawmakers’ handling of public education.) For the surviving tax-averse Republicans, this creates a conundrum: how do we answer the cry to make schools better without raising taxes?

People in North Texas are sick of funding their schools with property tax increases, and they want the Legislature to do something.

The first part of that answer: reward schools that make themselves more like DISD with more money. Broadly speaking, that has been the tenor of the testimony and reports produced by the Texas Commission on Public School Finance, a key member of which is Williams, who has been preaching these data-driven reforms through his nonprofit, Commit, for years.

“There is increasing political resolve that we have to do something,” Williams says. “Anytime you show people there are strategies that work, they can get behind it. They [legislators] have concluded that we have to do something urgent. We can’t allow a large swath of kids to miss out on Texas’ prosperity.”

Austin can’t legislate that districts adopt DISD programs like TEI and ACE, but lawmakers can incentivize districts to adopt the theory behind these programs. The state, for example, can give districts more money if they put in place better objective and subjective measurements of teachers so the districts can reward the best instructors and coach up or drive out the worst ones.

Given that these programs represent the cutting edge of large urban district school reform in America, the state’s decision to incentivize districts to implement these programs is a deserved point of pride for DISD advocates. Advocates and important Austin voices like Morath, who would not speak on the record for this article. But it doesn’t take a sleuth to see how much it helps to have the top education man be someone who, along with fellow trustees like Solis and Dan Micciche, designed and fought for these DISD reforms.

But these aren’t the only proposals being shopped around in Austin. There are a few that could make school finance reform legislation truly radical. Example: what if, when teachers are classified as high performing (either by state or local metrics), that designation follows teacher, not the district, and whichever district employs that teacher gets the money associated with the teacher’s designation? This would create competition for the best teachers. Richardson, say, could cherry-pick all of Frisco’s highest-performing teachers, and Richardson would have more money from the state to help it do so. As one state official told me, such measures could make this the biggest school finance reform this country has seen in a century.

The crucial question: how do we pay for all this? Some Democrats don’t like the caps being proposed on property taxes for various reasons. Republicans won’t want to call the tax raises by their name, even if they can say the money will go to schools. But there are ways—sales taxes could increase 10 to 15 percent this year; taxes on oil and gas production that traditionally go to the Rainy Day Fund could be diverted—to make it happen if the political will is there.

Do we in Dallas care how the funding happens? Heck no. “The bill as being drafted,” says one person deeply involved in said drafting, “is designed to shovel money to DISD.” We proved that the reforms work. Seems only fair.

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