In an attempt to relieve the beleaguered schools in the Dallas Independent School District, a group of reformers is suggesting a fairly radical version of charter schooling called home rule. Proposed by a committee named Support Our Public Schools (SOPS), the concept has the endorsement of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.
"Everybody's moving out of town," Rawlings said. "We had 25,000 of the 'haves' leave this school district in the last 10 years. Economically this is a train wreck."
There are currently no home-rule charter schools in Texas, but that isn't stopping Mayor Rawlings and company from pursuing it.
US Legal defines home rule as "the power of a local city or county to set up its own system of self-government without receiving a charter from the state." A home-rule charter would allow DISD to ignore state laws.
According to the Texas Education Agency, charter schools can improve learning by increasing the kinds of learning opportunities and making the system more accountable.
SOPS members said that turning DISD into a home-rule school district would provide more local control over curriculum and funding, make it easier to fire bad teachers, and allow for the extension of the instructional day and the school year.
Opponents include local teachers' groups such as Alliance AFT, which represents school employees in DISD and is affiliated with Texas AFT and the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers. Alliance AFT president Rena Honea as well as DISD trustee Carla Ranger have been among SOPS' most vocal opponents.
Honea described it to the Dallas Observer as a "horrible idea" in which "corporate interests will seek to turn our neighborhood schools into privately operated charter schools with no accountability to the public."
SOPS lists its president as Wilton Hollins, an HR professional for Emcare; he also serves on the board of Educate Dallas, a local PAC dedicated to electing candidates to the Dallas ISD board of trustees. Former Dallas City Council member Gary Griffith is a member. DISD trustee Mike Morath helped start the group.
Local teachers' groups and DISD trustee Carla Ranger have been among the most vocal opponents.
Offering financial assistance is Houston billionaire John Arnold, who grew up in Dallas and is a graduate of Hillcrest High School. Arnold has a longstanding interest in education issues; in a Forbes profile, he said he likes the competition that charter schools bring to the public system.
A post on DISDBlog questions the motives of Arnold and company, with a link that likens him to other billionaire school reformers such as the Koch brothers and the Heritage Foundation, who envision a profit-based approach to education that includes the ability to fire teachers.
DISDBlog wonders why a group of business people, some of whom don't live in Dallas, would be involved in the firing of DISD teachers, and by what standards those teachers would be measured.
Honea of the Alliance AFT told the Dallas Observer that other charter options can preserve the educational quality standards and safeguards of the Texas Education Code, such as an in-district charter campus.
"The in-district charter model has worked well in San Antonio ISD and in Austin, where it has fostered collaboration with community partners to support school innovation and improvement," she said. "It provides real parental empowerment and retains local, democratic control of public schools."
Before a home-rule district can be created, there are several steps necessary, including approval by the state education commissioner and by DISD voters. SOPS launched a petition on March 3. They need to obtain nearly 25,000 signatures to require the school board to name a 15-person commission to write a new district charter.
Once written, the charter needs to be approved by the state education commissioner and DISD voters.