Dallas ISD

A tale of two superintendents


As we know, school districts get a lot of grief from legislators and other state policymakers for problems that are largely the fault of state policymakers. Chief among these are a shortage of funding for a growing enrollment of low income and special needs children and a refusal among many legislators to recognize that they should be more accountable than third-graders.

But obviously local school leadership also makes a difference, which is why educators and parents are keeping their fingers crossed over the Austin school board’s decision this week to promote from within its own district’s ranks and give Interim Superintendent Paul Cruz the “permanent” superintendent’s job. How long permanent will be, of course, will depend on Cruz’s job performance. He will be challenged with a minefield of problems, including an uneven use of resources that has some neighborhood schools bursting at the seams of countless portables and others with room to spare.

Cruz’s promotion so far has been greeted with cautious optimism, mainly because Cruz has improved communication with educators, parents and the community as a whole.

Meanwhile, a couple of hundred miles up IH35, optimism — cautious or otherwise — may not be the term to apply to Dallas ISD, where Superintendent Mike Miles, based on what I read and hear, is more dictatorial than communicative. He has angered many teachers with excessive paperwork, played musical chairs with administrators, had an elected board member physically removed from a school campus and insists on grade school kids taking useless, standardized tests in PE.

Meanwhile, Dallas ISD still has the same urban school district problems it had when Miles arrived a few years ago, leaving the door wide open to a potential power grab by privatization advocates who are trying to convert the district into a home rule charter that could weaken educational standards and strip teachers of basic employment rights.

I am a taxpayer – and more importantly a parent — in Austin ISD, and I am rooting for Paul Cruz. I also am keeping a wary eye on Dallas, where many TSTA members are working hard for their students and their community under very difficult circumstances.


Testing second-graders on the fine art of skipping


Anyone out there who has had it up to here with standardized testing should take a look at the tests that Dallas ISD requires of grade-school students in art, band and – believe it or not – physical education. First you may have a good laugh, and then you may want to cry.

The tests required by Superintendent Mike Miles are ridiculous. The Assessment of Course Performance, or ACP, as it is known, for kindergarten art requires five-year-olds to “create artworks using a variety of lines, shapes, colors, textures and forms.” I don’t know what happens if a kid insists on sticking to one color, but surely he or she doesn’t have to repeat the class.

First-graders in music class are required to take a test measuring their ability to “sing tunefully,” and second-graders in PE are tested on their ability to “demonstrate mature form in skipping,” among other skills.

The Dallas Morning News (see the link below) provides several more examples of this preposterous administrative incursion into the classroom day and rip-off of taxpayer dollars. It almost seems as if Superintendent Miles is trying to motivate parents to pack their children off to private school, if they can afford it, even before they hit the STAAR grind in the third grade.

According to the newspaper, Dallas ISD teachers and parents have rallied against the tests because they are stressing out children and taking away too much time from actual learning. At a school board briefing on Thursday, some trustees urged the superintendent to consider eliminating the tests.

I have a better idea for the board. It should demand, not simply ask, that the superintendent call a halt to the testing foolishness. The board, after all, hired the superintendent and can fire him. So, why should trustees allow the tail to wag the dog?



You can’t improve schools by running over educators


John Arnold survived the Enron collapse, started his own hedge fund and then retired in 2012 – when he was 38 – with an estimated personal wealth of $3 billion. Not bad, eh? Not bad for anyone, least of all a graduate of the often-maligned Dallas Independent School District.

Of course, not every child who enters DISD is the son of a corporate lawyer, as was Arnold. Many other DISD kids come from backgrounds of much lower income and lower expectations, and many fail along the way. This supposedly is the reason that Arnold, who now lives in the very upscale River Oaks neighborhood of Houston, is a major financial backer of a controversial effort to overhaul Dallas ISD by converting it into a home-rule charter district.

In a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News, Arnold credited the obvious role of teachers in his own success, acknowledged that teachers are “vital” for public schools and said he wasn’t trying to put teacher unions out of business. His recent, public record, however, is largely a slap at educators, the same people who help put him where he is today.

Until the Dallas ISD takeover attempt, Arnold was best known for his proposal to do away with defined benefit pensions for teachers and other public employees and replace them with risky, 401(k)-style investment plans that could evaporate if the economy sours on the eve of a teacher’s retirement. Since most Texas teachers don’t get Social Security, their hard-earned TRS defined-benefit pensions are about their only nest egg. And, it is downright galling for a 40-year-old billionaire to propose taking that away.

According to the Dallas Morning News, a foundation established by Arnold and his wife gave $72.6 million to education-related groups and causes from 2008 through 2012. But let’s take a look at some of the top 10 recipients of Arnold’s money.

Some $20,223,700 went to Teach for America, a corps of college graduates who teach in struggling schools. The theory may sound good, but it is only a temporary education fix, at best. Many of these young graduates have no intention of becoming educators. They teach for a few years, move on to higher paying jobs, and are replaced by other young people who also soon will be moving on. Some districts may hire them because they are cheaper than more-experienced, appropriately certified teachers.

The Arnold foundation has given more than $9 million to charter school networks and $1.5 million to Parent Revolution, a group supporting “parent trigger” laws enabling parents to turn over neighborhood public schools to private operators of charter schools. And, the foundation has given more than $12 million to two groups founded by Michelle Rhee, who declared war on teachers when she headed public schools in Washington, D.C.

And, now, Arnold is backing a misnamed group called “Support our Public Schools,” which, if it succeeds, could wipe out contractual and grievance rights for teachers and all other Dallas ISD employees – and force them to take pay cuts.

If Arnold is so interested in improving public education, why doesn’t he take some time to sit down and meet with real educators, the people in the classroom everyday, instead of going out of his way to undercut their influence and their livelihoods?



Dallas ISD takeover attempt fails the smell test


The real stakeholders in Dallas ISD – parents and taxpayers who actually live in the district – are starting to weigh in on the money-backed effort to hijack the district and convert it into a home-rule charter operation, and they are making it clear they don’t like the idea.

Supporters of the scheme, which was kept secret for who knows how long, finally hosted town hall meetings in Dallas last night and were greeted with a barrage of justifiable complaints and questions. According to the Dallas Morning News, parents and taxpayers wanted to know who is paying for the campaign, why it is being moved so fast, what organizers want to do with the locally elected school board and why no promotional materials were published in Spanish, the first language of many DISD families. And, real answers still are in short supply.

The only source of funding for the campaign who has been made public so far is former Enron trader John Arnold, a billionaire who lives miles away in Houston and who already has declared war on teachers and other school employees by seeking to abolish their hard-earned, defined-benefits pensions.

The group fronting the takeover attempt has deliberately misnamed itself as a grassroots organization professing to “Support our Public Schools,” when, in truth, it is a well-financed, outside group seeking to offer more opportunities for corporate interests to take over neighborhood Dallas schools.

“This is not a debate,” state Rep. Jason Villalba, who supports the takeover effort, tried to tell the audience at one town hall meeting. Oh, but it is a debate, and so far Villalba’s side hasn’t been very convincing that the effort is anything more than a privatization grab.

Villalba also was quoted in the Dallas Morning News, “This is not something that is meant to be done by billionaires from another place.”

Oh, yeah? Looks like a duck, walks like a duck, smells like a duck….You know the rest.