Now that Governor Greg Abbott has announced his new pick for Texas Education Agency Commissioner, Mike Morath is stepping down as the Dallas ISD trustee for Hillcrest High School and its feeder schools.
Morath was a newcomer to the scene when he ran for office in 2011 to replace Jack Lowe on the board. No one really knew him or why he wanted to run for office. He had been CEO of a software company that streamlined a federal meal program for schools; he sold the company for millions and entered semi-retirement in his 30s. So what did he want with a seat on the Dallas ISD board?
To change the world, it turns out, or at least to change the city. Assuming he could keep running and winning, Morath planned to stay in office for a decade and pour every spare minute into transforming Dallas schools. He almost reached the halfway point before Austin came calling. As a trustee who managed to evoke either strong admiration or contempt, the reactions from his supporters and critics weren’t surprising. What is surprising is how much they both overlooked.
It’s easy to look at a guy who lives in Lakewood, who represents the wealthiest areas of Dallas ISD and who was appointed to a state job by a Republican governor and make all kinds of judgments. Morath, however, doesn’t fit that neatly into a category.
No doubt he’s a policy wonk, as the DMN describes him, but perhaps more than that, Morath is a data wonk. When he decided to throw himself into education reform, he began devouring research and stats.
“I’m certainly not an education expert, but I’ve accumulated a lot of data,” says his campaign website. He funnels all of it into Excel spreadsheets that drive his policy decisions.
He is, therefore, a champion of reform policies — among them, Dallas ISD’s Teacher Excellence Initiative, school choice and the short-lived Home Rule initiative. These sweeping changes are popular with the city’s powers-that-be, which make them immediately suspect to its historically disenfranchised. Morath’s stubborn stances haven’t made him popular on the board; even fellow trustees who typically side with him grow weary of his tactics. But they know what they are losing with his appointment to the TEA — a reliable and valuable fifth vote on decisions that matter to the most disadvantaged Dallas schoolchildren.
Because despite what his critics think, Morath’s motivation to serve on the DISD board, and now to oversee all of Texas’ 1,200 schools, is his desire to educate poor kids. Sure, he may have helped orchestrate the campaign for an addition to Dallas’ wealthiest elementary school community, Lakewood, and later helped push through a finance package that benefitted both that school and the other wealthiest elementary school community, Stonewall Jackson. He was one of the champions of creating Mata Montessori, Dallas’ first choice school, which was criticized for being a political concession to the parents of the nearby and overcrowded wealthy schools. And he was the brains behind home rule, an initiative intended to break Dallas ISD away from the state’s governance, which was criticized as a way to hand it over to the city’s business elite.
His critics believe that he is looking out for the 1 percent, and the 1 percent believe he’s one of them. What they don’t seem to see is his repeated insistence that Dallas ISD’s student population is close to 90 percent economically disadvantaged, so at the end of the day, the district’s job, and its focus, should be how to best educate poor kids. And Morath has been willing to politick to make that a stronger possibility. Believe him or not (and many people don’t), that’s what he’s in it for.
One of my recent encounters with Morath was at an open house for Dan D. Rogers Elementary, one of the district’s newest choice schools with a new curriculum called “personalized learning” that Morath has branded “high-tech Montessori.” The school, which is in East Dallas but feeds to Hillcrest, is overwhelmingly populated by low-income, minority families, many of them immigrants and refugees. The surrounding neighbors fought like hell five years ago to be rezoned to Lakewood Elementary. It didn’t work, and Rogers still hasn’t attracted many of the middle-class families who live in nearby homes.
At the open house, however, several of them showed up to see what the fuss was about. Morath toured with them and acted as a plant, peppering teachers and administrators with questions about the program. I chatted with him between classrooms, and he told me that with all of the great choices, his dilemma was where he eventually would send his 3-year-old daughter.
Would it be to Rogers? Or perhaps to Mata Montessori, if she could snag a lottery spot? Or to the new all-girls Solar STEAM school at the former Bonham campus (again, lottery willing), which will be intentionally socioeconomically diverse? Or to Robert E. Lee or Lipscomb elementary schools, with their new International Baccalaureate and dual language curriculum?
Lakewood, Morath’s neighborhood school, and Stonewall Jackson were notably absent from his list of top choices. He didn’t say why, but it’s safe to say that the caliber of those schools aren’t the reason. They are reliably high-performing campuses. Morath obviously cares deeply about the education of his daughter, as he will be about his soon-to-be-born son. He cares just as deeply, however, about the education of all of Dallas’ children. His record on the board speaks to that, as does his intention to to send his children to schools that are still — and likely will continue to be — filled with children who are statistically more likely to be straggling behind his own.
Why? First and foremost because they are good schools. Morath spent blood, sweat, tears and all kinds of political capital to make sure of that. But also because he is a believer in change from the inside out, and transformation requires personal investment.
Somehow, nearly five years on the Dallas ISD board hasn’t squashed his optimism. Now he heads to Austin, where the stakes are higher and the political mire is thicker, armed with Excel spreadsheets and resilient faith. Whether or not people agree with his metrics and tactics, it’s hard to deny his work ethic. If anyone can turn the tide of prospects for Texas schoolchildren, perhaps it’s him.
As Morath told us when he took first took office, “It’s on those of us who can do something to actually do something.”
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