The Classroom Teacher, spring 2014

If you haven't been following the latest education initiative in Dallas ISD, you may want to start. Although Dallas, along with its behemoth counterpart Houston, has been heavily involved in reforms in areas such as teacher appraisal in recent years, some in Dallas are proposing the “nuclear option” — home rule.

The so-called “home rule” statute has been in law since 1995. It allows voters to decide to largely secede from the state’s system of laws and regulations governing schools and make up their own.

The two systems that districts would probably most like to get out from under, school finance and accountability, would remain applicable to a home-rule district. But pretty much everything else — including class-size caps, teacher contracts, the minimum salary schedule, the ability to remove disruptive students, and parental rights — would be up to those in control.

The home-rule law has always been a bit of a bogeyman, with no district attempting to implement it since the law was enacted. One reason is that current Texas law already grants significant autonomy to school districts, with only a short list of items the commissioner of education can’t waive upon a school district’s request.

Home rule also is not easily selected as an option, with 5 percent of a district’s voters required to sign a petition to get the initiative on the ballot and 25 percent of the district’s voters required to turn out in an election in which it is approved. Though 25 percent of voters participating (only a majority of whom would have to favor the proposal) would be high for a local election, that threshold is routinely exceeded in gubernatorial and presidential elections like the one we will have in November 2014.

Home rule’s backers

The push to make DISD a home-rule district is being advanced by Mayor Mike Rawlings, who has put a significant amount of political capital on the line to do so. He is joined by a Dallas-based group called Support Our Public Schools. Also of interest is that one of the primary financial backers is John Arnold, a billionaire former Enron executive and retired hedge fund manager from Houston.

Prior to the 2013 legislative session, Arnold was a strong supporter of unsuccessful efforts to convert Texas public pensions, including the Teacher Retirement System, from defined benefit to defined contribution plans (similar to a 401k). Fortunately, since TRS is in such good financial shape, particularly relative to its counterparts in other states, the initiative did not go far.

However, Arnold has also turned his attention to the sorts of “reforms” that TCTA spent the last session fighting. He provided significant funding to a group called Texans for Education Reform, which hired an army of lobbyists to push the reform agenda. The group supports efforts that would scale back teacher rights and benefits, increase the number of charter schools, and allow private takeovers of public schools. We expect more of the same in the 2015 session.

Why home rule?

Oddly, backers don’t seem to be able to articulate (or are not being forthcoming) about what parts of the current law they find so objectionable that they want to go to a home-rule system. They have made references to expanding the school day and school year, both of which can already be done under current law; the extra days just can’t be prior to the fourth Monday in August. Another focus appears to be the structure of the DISD school board.

Proponents also note the possibility of “labor flexibility” to make teachers at-will employees, apparently not recognizing that current contractual protections are minimal and benefit both employees and the school district.

How far will it go?

Thus far, the home-rule proposal in DISD is off to a bumpy start. According to reports, when Mayor Rawlings addressed an invited group to encourage home rule, he perceived the first two questions as hostile or offensive and left the meeting.

The general public doesn’t seem accepting of the idea, particularly as people realize that home rule could and very well might mean the dissolution of the elected, single-member district school board — replaced by a management company, appointed leaders, or some other entity.

While the public wants to know what the home-rule district would look like, backers of the proposal respond that they will start with a blank sheet of paper and can’t answer those questions. (Under the law, if the requisite 5 percent of registered voters sign the petition, a 15-member commission will be appointed to draft the details of the proposed home-rule district; the draft would then be submitted to voters in November.)

The good news is that public education advocates seem to be finding assistance in unexpected places as more and more people recognize and resist the orchestrated attack on public schools that is being waged in the name of reform. The moms who formed Texans Advocating for Meaningful Student Assessment were instrumental last session in persuading legislators to roll back the number of tests their children had to take.

And the Dallas public, local columnists, and others are asking the right questions and recognizing the potential for a “Game of Thrones”-style oligarchy if all of the power is in the hands of the few. Though superintendents are usually among the most fervent fans of local control, even the DISD superintendent isn’t supporting this play.

Astute observers point out that when and if the 5 percent of signatures is gathered, there won’t be much time before November to create a new school system on that blank piece of paper. However, should voters approve home rule and it doesn’t turn out to meet expectations, there is no current provision in law for “undoing” their decision.

So here’s hoping that Dallas voters, whatever issues they may have with the traditional system of public schools, decide to address those issues within the existing infrastructure rather than by dismantling a system that allows the active and ongoing participation of the parents and public it serves.