At some point, in a tour of some new found friends from the east coast, I mentioned 'DISD'. I, do have a habit of using acronyms and phrases that I think are universally understood. It can be embarrassing when you find out they are not. As in this case.
What's 'DISD'? One of they 'tourists', a preacher from Virginia, asked. "Dallas Independent School District"? I replied, patiently. "Independent?", he asked. "Independent, from what?" As I fumbled through the an explanation, I realized it was something I had just taken for granted. Aren't all school districts 'independent'. Those of you who know better are probably laughing me to scorn. I don't blame you.
But the idea, that school districts in Texas, operating as independent government bodies, is something I've always taken as a matter of course. But, over the past year or so, what we have really seen, is something that those of us who just 'assumed' the independent nature of public education, have often suspected: they appear to be independent of accountability.
After the $84 million financial debacle last year, inadequately funded inner city schools. A reputation for education that has families, black and white, running for the nearest (or farthest), suburbs one wonders how much longer DISD will earn the right to remain 'independent'.
Just how do we fix this mess anyway? A new superintendent? That idea seems to have gone out the window. A new school board - uh, please...they just voted add an extra year onto their term of office. Without much public outcry, and without much in the way of legal opinion as to whether or not such an action is lawful.
Meanwhile, our children are not being educated. And more and more adults whom we trust, are trying to syphon dollars from campuses and classrooms.
Everyone of us can point to exceptional students and great teachers. But neither grow on trees. Education is not just for 'exceptional' students, nor is the teaching profession just for stars. Every advancement we can think of, in arts, science, the economy, education, religion and government, depends upon developing life long learners out of those young boys and girls in our cities classrooms today.
So what do we do?
More and more people are talking about two rather creative proposals. One proposal is to break up this large unwieldy 'independent' district into several school districts. They would be smaller, more manageable and more accountable to the communities in which they are located. Each one could be more innovative in their approach to education. I not only have some affinity for that idea, I think there are circumstances under which it could work. But only if tax revenue could be shared equally among all districts. However, even then, the income disparity between communities would still result in rich school districts and poor school districts. And while I like this idea in a romantic, best of all possible worlds scenario, it doesn't seem to be working all that well in a state like, say California.
There is another conversation that is starting. Have Mayor of the city, run the school district as well. Again, another interesting idea. The Mayor could appoint or hire the superintendent, the councilpersons can appoint the school board. It has some merit because cities have a large stake in whether or not public education is successful. It impacts the ability to attract business and it affects housing patterns.
On the other hand, we are adding quite a bit on the plate of elected representatives who we sometimes suspect are inadequate to perform their current duties. Are we willing to pay them more? If not, aren't we relegating the pool of city council candidates to a pool of citizens who can 'afford' to run for and hold elective office?
No plan is perfect. All systems and configurations of those systems are vulnerable to corruption, abuse and mismanagement. But it is clear that we need to do something, because the current system isn't working. And its no longer acceptable to brush away Dallas' education problems by saying its a national problem. At some point, we should want to be the exception rather than prove the rule.
What's really great is that people across the city are thinking. They are thinking, debating and asking difficult questions. Not enough of them, but some are beginning to think and deliberate. They are thinking creatively and passionately about a deep problem. And maybe the one thing we should take away from this, whatever system emerges or even if we manage to fix the current one, is that the 'I' in 'DISD', should really stand for 'Interdependent'.