Public school districts have great power over families, but are not as locally accountable as they first appear.
According to local news reports, the Cy-Fair Independent School District is planning to re-draw attendance zones again, and the Board is inviting feedback from concerned parents. Such re-zoning efforts occur all too frequently around the Lone Star State in response to population growth, and always create much anxiety in the affected communities. However most Texas parents believe that during the rezoning process Attendance Boundary committees work with local citizens to collect information that the district will then use to formulate a new plan.
But in most cases, the parents are wrong.
In reality, prior to any “citizen” committee input, most district administrations have already formulated a proposal, but employ a heavily-massaged “Delphi Technique” to promote the predetermined plan. The district superintendent and board members will carefully select a combination of “experts” and some residents to serve on a committee. The committee will be tasked with examining selected data and reviewing proposals. While a few tweaks may be allowed, the plan approved by the administration is the only plan that will be approved. If all goes accordingly, the committee will unanimously vote to support the district’s plan. Afterwards the school board will go through the motions of hearing more testimony, but also dutifully approve the original proposal. The purpose of this process is to create the appearance of community input and support.
Occasionally, informed citizens push back on these Delphi Technique maneuvers. In 2012, parents in Round Rock created an alternate re-zoning plan that was more cost-effective, manageable, and acceptable to most of the community, but in a series of highly charged and controversial proceedings, the district plan won out, as was always intended. Due to such controversies (including this one over an illegally formulated School Health Advisory Council,) many districts have become more careful about the proceedings at such committees. However, school districts still heavily depend on these techniques to promote everything from extravagant bond debt initiatives to socially liberal sex education programs.
Modified Delphi-style committees are only one way school district administrators manipulate perceptions. Although school board members are elected to represent parents and voters, Texas districts send new trustees to Texas Association of School Boards (TASB,) training classes. There, TASB teaches that the superintendent is the “quarterback,” and that the board is merely the supporting team. In other words, the board must only run the plays called by the QB-superintendent. TASB, which works closely with TASA (Texas Association of School Administrators) also suggests that a successful board votes unanimously; any dissension is a sign of failure. (The fact that TASA gave the Cy-Fair ISD Board an Outstanding School Board Award in 2015 tells us volumes about that board.*)
Furthermore, most ISDs in Texas have a handbook, or set of rules, for school board members that restrict the ability of trustees to act in their capacity as elected representatives of the people. Recently, the public learned that Katy ISD restricts free speech by prohibiting elected board members from speaking to the media. Many other districts have additional restraints in place, such as prohibiting trustees from visiting district schools without permission from the superintendent. Or vaguely restricting trustees from “investigating” district matters without permission. While we like to think elected officials govern our school districts, in reality non-elected administrators exercise great power over public education. Therefore as reformers work to reduce federal control over education, they must also address trends that make “local control” more bureaucratic than democratic.
News reports on Cy-Fair ISD’s re-zoning have included comments from parents obviously anguished by the impact on their children. Understandably so. It must be incredibly frustrating to have such a significant portion of your and your children’s lives subject to the machinations of government bureaucracy. Especially one that may be much less democratic than it first appears. It is for this reason that a growing number of parents are demanding the right to make their own educational choices. No bureaucracy should have this much power of the life of a family.
*TASA stated one reason CFISD won the award was due to their passage of a $1.2 billion bond package. Ouch.