One way or the other, the Texas legislature is going to make sure DISD and every other school district in the state receives less funding during the next two years, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
You won’t find too many people bragging that having $80 million to $200 million less in funding each of the next two years is one of the greatest opportunities in recent DISD history, but that’s the case here. We’ve all learned over the years that simply spending more and more money educating students doesn’t automatically make them smarter, nor has it made our schools safer for students, either.
So why be optimistic about a pending budget shortfall?
Well, optimistic is probably not the right word here, but “determined” might be a better one. We can argue all day about how much DISD has improved its academics during the past five years, comparing notes about results on this test or that performance measure, but the bottom line is that DISD is improving, and it can continue to do so even if there’s less money to spend.
Dallas Morning News columnist and education writer William McKenzie offered an interesting analysis about what legislators and trustees should do with less, but it’s behind the DMN’s private paywall. He made some great points, some of which I agree with, and he left a few other ideas off the grid. Unless you’re part of the DMN program, you can’t read his comments; mine are free, and here they are:
• Cut magnet spending to match spending at neighborhood schools. It’s last on McKenzie’s list and first on mine: If you’re asking parents to buy-in to schools with lots less funding, it’s only fair to make sure that per-student funding at all schools is equal. Historically, magnets have received more funding, which translates into more teachers per student and better resources. That’s great for parents who want a free private school education under DISD’s umbrella, but it’s simply not fair — all students, gifted or otherwise, deserve access to the same learning opportunities. How else can we determine which students really are gifted and which are simply afforded better opportunities? It stands to reason that even with less funding, magnets will still attract some of the district’s best students, teachers and administrators — after all, if you’re interested in the arts, Booker T. Washington will still be the place to go. Even in a defunded world, smart people will still find a way to make Booker T. a showcase for DISD — they’ll just have to work harder to do so, much like the people at the neighborhood schools.
• Hire a separate superintendent for DISD funding, and take that job responsibility away from current Supt. Michael Hinojosa. I’ve argued this point before here on the blog, and I’ve talked with several DISD trustees about it, too, but I still seem to be the only proponent. I’m still not taking the hint, though. My thought: Administrators who are great at financial management and accounting aren’t likely to be great at stimulating academic progress, and vice versa. We saw what happened a few years ago when Hinojosa hired a DISD CFO from the private sector; DISD wound up with a $100 million or so deficit, lots of people were laid off and demanding Hinojosa’s head became a cottage industry among some parents and teachers. Funding is going to be an issue for years, so it makes sense to hire someone reporting directly to the board whose sole responsibility is determining how much money DISD will have each year and monitoring expenditures to keep the district well-funded. Losing accountability for finances would free Hinojosa to concentrate solely on spending an assigned amount of money on continuing to improve academics, and that would make it much easier to make Hinojosa accountable for what should be the most important part of his job anyway.
• DISD should consolidate some schools and close others in areas without enough kids to fill the buildings. McKenzie’s right, but doing so will involve politically painful decisions. There should be a way to do this that keeps neighborhood kids in neighborhood schools, but it will involve carefully and quickly re-aligning attendance zones. Now that should be fun — riled-up parents screaming about having the rug pulled out from under them in terms of where their kid will attend school. But just like at home when there’s no enough money to go around, sometimes painful decisions need to be made. My best advice to DISD trustees: Set up a “select committee” to make the call, resist the urge to alter the suggestions for political gain, and fasten your seatbelts.
• Some of the newly empty schools (or even partially empty schools) could be home to budding charter schools (McKenzie’s idea) or perhaps pre-kindergarten programs designed to boost student performance. Non-profit groups such as the YMCA provide childcare in affordable locations citywide, but often there simply aren’t enough such locations to meet demand. Since DISD won’t be able to afford to do everything anyway, why not use facilities it already owns and funding/adminstration provided by others to multiply what it can do?
• Make personnel decisions the way private companies do. Put someone (a principal, most likely) in charge of each school, and make him/her accountable for results at the school by giving him/her authority to hire and fire on campus. If we’re going to get “world-class” performance (thanks for the adjective, former Mayor Leppert!) from our schools, we need personal accountability — there can’t be any more finger-pointing toward Ross Avenue when it comes to determining which principals/teachers are doing a good job and which ones aren’t. Just like at private companies, there will be good bosses and bad bosses, so there will be good decisions and bad decisions made at each school. DISD’s administration has the tools to evaluate teachers and principals now, so the trustees need to grow some backbones and use this de-funding opportunity to implement a true chain-of-command situation that gives top talent the opportunity to do its job relatively unfettered by bureaucrats.
Current board trustees such as Edwin Flores have pushed for magnet school funding equality and performance-based evaluations to help meet the district’s funding shorfall. New board trustees such as Eric Cowan and Mike Morath have said they want to make DISD better by being smarter. This will be the best opportunity in years to make serious changes in the way DISD educates students and administers its program.
Every election, every trustee tells voters he or she wants to be elected so he or she can “make a difference” in the lives of students. This is their chance — likely their one big chance — to do something dramatic and intelligent.