Mike Morath made no bones about wanting to oust the Dallas ISD board of trustees when he was one of them. And now that he’s the big boss — the Texas Education Agency commissioner who oversees all 1,200-plus Texas school districts, including DISD — he’s threatening to make his original plan a reality.
The TEA sent a letter to DISD and 10 other school districts last week requiring their superintendents and boards to “undergo leadership training or face serious sanctions,” as a Houston Chronicle story put it, including “trustees being forced from their elected positions and the closing of schools.”
The impetus for the leadership training is chronically low-performing schools. Morath believes that the fault lies squarely with those at the top; that’s what he told a Senate Education Committee hearing in August, according to the Dallas Morning News.
“I don’t think we can sit back and armchair quarterback and complain about underperforming teachers at an individual campus when, in fact, it’s the leadership at the district level that sets the stage for whether they can succeed or not,” Morath said.
At that hearing, Morath promised that “Texas will now see more interventions and stronger interventions.” He was referring to a new law that gives him “the authority to shake things up by appointing a board of managers for an entire district if it has just one campus failing state accountability standards for five years or more,” the DMN story noted.
Dallas ISD falls into that category, and like the other districts, must agree to TEA leadership training if the superintendent and trustees want to stave off consequences. But the letter to DISD goes a few steps further: It highlights DISD’s Principal Excellence Initiative (PEI), Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI) and Accelerated Campus Excellence (ACE) program — education reforms the board passed in recent years, which Morath championed while he was still behind the dais — and notes that “the agency believes that the district’s ability to execute this plan would be much greater with the continuation” of these reforms. In fact, “the district should expect that if PEI, TEl, and/or ACE implementation falter, they will impact the agency’s view.”
Morath, now in Austin, appears to be keeping his thumb on the DISD trustees from afar. The letter says “the agency applauds Dallas on its implementation” of the reforms, “which have been such an important part of improving student outcomes in the district. With the help of these programs, Dallas was able to show more growth [in its failing schools] than anywhere else in Texas.”
“We certainly appreciate that recognition,” says DISD Board President Dan Micciche, whose board tenure overlapped Morath’s for 3.5 years. The current commissioner “was a huge proponent of all three of these programs,” Micciche says.
The board won’t discuss the letter until its Oct. 27 meeting, and by then, Micciche says, the superintendent and his team will have a recommendation on how to respond and hopefully will have some clarifications from TEA on what exactly its concerns are with the improvement plans DISD submitted, plus what kind of leadership training would be required.
As to whether or not Morath will take the opportunity to replace DISD’s board with an appointed board of managers, Micciche said that’s a question for Morath.
“The commissioner always had some sort of residual power to impose controls or monitor school districts. The recent law seems to have given the commissioner additional circumstances” under which to invoke these sanctions, Micciche says. “Whether he would exercise those powers, I don’t know.”
Three years ago, Morath advocated overthrowing the system of electing nine trustees and replacing it with appointees, either partly or fully. After five years on the board, he came to believe that “there is no real accountability to children for board members. Trustees are accountable to us, the voters. But such a tiny number of us vote that is easy for adult special interests to triumph over the need to improve outcomes for children.
“This isn’t right. Much like teachers, principals and the superintendent, trustees should not be allowed to keep their jobs if they do not get results for kids.”
Democracy isn’t working for Texas schoolchildren because too few people participate in the system, Morath said. Being a data and policy wonk, he found a potential legal solution called “home rule” and began evangelizing to fellow believers. This led to a nonprofit group called “Support Our Public Schools” that backed home rule, and a DISD board-appointed home rule commission to look into the possibility.
The commission ultimately nixed the idea. A year and a half later, Morath was selected for the position in Austin. In the interim, the State Legislature passed updates to the education code that not only allow but, in some cases, requires the commissioner to replace a board of trustees with a board of managers if failing campuses don’t improve — an imperative that Morath seems more than willing to seize upon.
“The home-rule effort in DISD may not be dead,” states a DMN story in January 2015 when the commission voted down home rule. “Some supporters have discussed lobbying state legislators to modify the law to make home rule easier to implement.”
That’s pretty much what happened, except that the changes in the law gave home rule-esque powers to the TEA commissioner. And now, the sitting TEA commissioner is the guy who pushed the idea of home rule in the first place, and the law gives him sole authority to oust and replace trustees as he sees fit.