Back in 1995, I authored legislation that first created home-rule school districts in Texas. I envisioned it would allow local school boards and their constituent citizens to come together and decide how their local schools would operate and how their kids would be educated. By vote of the district’s citizens, it would give local schools freedom from a host of state mandates, similar to freedoms now enjoyed by open enrollment charter schools.
While Dallas ISD’s recent experience with home rule revealed flaws in the operation of the statute, I urge legislators to be careful about undermining the fundamental intent of home rule: to enhance local control. While home-rule legislation pending before the Texas House (HB 1798) and Senate (SB 1012) does address some technical issues, I fear the legislation as it emerged from committee in the House ultimately undermines the local control it was designed to bolster.
In Dallas, community members expressed concern that the home-rule process was being hijacked by outside interests pouring a lot of money into influencing the outcome and telling them how to run their schools. In its current form, the legislation may only make that problem worse.
A recently revised version of the pending legislation gives a lot of power to the “Lead Petitioner,” who gets to name a majority of the committee members appointed to plan the home-rule district and largely set the terms of the petition to go before the voters. This organizer wouldn’t even be required to be a qualified voter in the school district.
All of this creates the perception — and perhaps the reality — that the home-rule statute is being reframed and restructured as a battering ram for outside interests to exert their will over a school district. This is precisely the opposite of what was intended, which was to empower local communities to chart their own course and reclaim more freedom from state mandates. While there might always be some challenges in moving to a new governance structure, the idea behind the law was to foster consensus on a new direction — not foster conflict.
To achieve this goal, it would seem that, at a minimum, the organizers of the home-rule effort should be required to be qualified voters in the district. Home rule should be, as its name suggests, determined by the people who live and raise their children in the district — not outsiders.
Additionally, the appointments and voting structure for the committee that plans the home-rule district and defines what will be put before the voters should require some consensus. If the committee is to be named by the school board and the lead petitioner, and if the lead petitioner names the majority of the votes, any proposal should be required to garner a majority of the votes of both sets of appointees, not just a majority of the committee. To do otherwise allows the lead petitioner, who is not elected by the public, to effectively stack the committee with a majority to override the appointees named by local elected officials.
I have been asked over the years why so much was left open in the home-rule statute. My answer has always been that this legislation was about local control, so most of the decisions should be left to local people. In retrospect, there are some things I would have done differently, but that fundamental belief remains.
In attempting to improve the home-rule statute, I urge my former colleagues in the Legislature not to overcorrect and pass legislation that ultimately wrests control away from where it belongs — with local voters.
Bill Ratliff is the former lieutenant governor of Texas. He serves as an advisory board member of the education advocacy organization Raise Your Hand Texas.