Dallas Public School District Working to Win Back Choice Students

Published February 8, 2017

Tacitly acknowledging families’ increasing migration away from public schools, the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) held a school fair to advertise its offerings to students who have left local public schools for alternative learning opportunities.

Between 2015 and 2016, DISD lost 2,000 students and $10 million in state funding. In December 2016, DISD hosted “Discover Dallas ISD,” a district-wide school fair for parents and students to meet DISD staff and learn more about the district’s school programs.

“Dallas ISD enrollment could be down as many as 2,000 students from last year despite efforts to entice parents back to the district, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said,” The Dallas Morning News reported in August 2016. “The district had been expecting an increase of 700 students, but instead, the numbers continue to drop.”

‘Looking for Other Options’

Eddie Conger, superintendent of the International Leadership of Texas Charter School (IL Texas), says parents are leaving DISD in favor of private and charter schools because they are dissatisfied with the product their children are receiving.

“I spent some time in DISD, and there are some great people in DISD and some fantastic teachers, but for some reasons, parents are looking for other options,” Conger said.

Conger says parents send their children to IL Texas because of the school’s leadership component and its language classes.

“Everything we do starts with a mission statement saying we will prepare students for a leadership role in the international community—by emphasizing servant leadership, by mastering English, Spanish, and Mandarin Chinese, and strengthening the mind, the body, and the character,” Conger said. “We’re a brand-new charter. We started in 2013 with 2,500 kids, and three years later we have just over 10,000 students. The DISD is a district of about 160,000 students. It’s kind of like David versus Goliath.”

Charters Are More Innovative

Stephanie Matthews, a senior policy advisor at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Education Freedom, says choice schools have more flexibility to innovate, allowing them to meet families’ needs.

“I think in particular you will find in the largest urban districts, there are a lot of schools, but they don’t offer differentiated learning,” Matthews said. “Parents are seeking education environments which better fit their kids, and most often that’s not in a one-size-fits-all approach, which is what some of these larger urban districts do, because it’s what they’ve done for decades. I think parents are getting fed up with it, and they see and hear about choice options more and more often, so they’re actively choosing this as a solution.”

‘The Demand Is There’

Matthews says Texas is not keeping up with the demand for education choice.

“Unfortunately, Texas is one of a very few states which has not implemented a statewide private school choice program,” Matthews said. “There are 61 programs in 30 states across the nation, plus DC, who have created school choice options for parents, and Texas is not one of them. In Houston, for example, there are close to 30,000 kids on a charter school waiting list. Statewide, there are 130,000 kids on waitlists for charter schools. Clearly, the demand is there.”

Matthews says families are forcing DISD to change its approach in order to attract students.

“They are actively changing a lot of their schools and converting them into different types of schools that are more specialized; for example, a school for all girls and a [science, technology, engineering, and math] school,” Matthews said. “Obviously, they are feeling the pain of a large number of families choosing to leave the district, so they are becoming creative, which is one of the benefits of school choice.

“Evidence shows when you have robust school choice, traditional districts innovate, which is exactly what we want them to do,” Matthews said. “Every family deserves the ability of choosing the school for their kid, so district schools evolve. When you do see robust school choice options, you see districts innovate and offer more to parents, and they become more creative.”

Kenneth Artz ([email protected]) writes from Dallas, Texas.