How Has Lack of School Choice Impacted Dallas?

Dallas ISD
Dallas ISD | Image by WFAA

Texas has a lot of things going for it these days, but the varying quality of its public schools stands out as a big obstacle to future growth, especially in Dallas.

People are moving to the state in droves, but Dallas seems to be bucking the growth trend, with U.S. Census data showing that the city somehow decreased in population between 2020 and 2022. Why is that?

An analysis of Texas Education Agency (TEA) data from the 2021-2022 school year conducted by The Dallas Express indicated that Dallas County comes in dead last among the Lone Star State’s top six big-city counties when it comes to public school student achievement outcomes. The county was dragged down by the 86 campuses that earned a D or F rating in Dallas ISD.

The Dallas Express has been staying true to its mission to hold local elected leaders accountable for the results of their governance, launching its Bad Apple series last April. However, local governance does not happen in a vacuum, and a plurality of respondents to a survey conducted that same month said they thought a “lack of school choice” was the main reason the district remains one of the worst performing in the state.

Many school choice proponents argue it gives otherwise complacent school boards in poor-performing districts a real incentive to actually improve educational outcomes since they have to compete in an expanded marketplace. While private schools have always been an option for some, tuition can be prohibitively high. More than 80% of Dallas ISD students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

Opponents of school choice, on the other hand, claim the policy would divert taxpayer money away from traditional public schools, making matters even worse for struggling districts even though they would be responsible for teaching fewer students. One of the most vocal adversaries of school choice in North Texas has been Dallas ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde, who has used her position to assail the policy at school board meetings, in district news briefs, and at civic speaking engagements.

“One thing that I can guarantee is if private school subsidies are part of this state, we will never have enough money in public education to pay our teachers what they are worth,” Elizalde claimed at a Dallas Regional Chamber event in September of last year, per KERA News.

As previously reported by The Dallas Express, school choice policies logged a banner year in 2023, with several states adopting or expanding programs that enable more U.S. families to use taxpayer money to help pay for educational alternatives for their children. However, the initiative stalled in Texas once again despite polls suggesting that some kind of state-wide school choice policy is popular across many demographics, with black and Hispanic Texans appearing to show the most enthusiasm. Relatedly, around 90% of Dallas ISD students during the 2021-2022 school year were black or Hispanic.

Gov. Greg Abbott, an avid supporter of school choice, called four special sessions last year, hoping to see a bill he could sign that would offer Texans education savings accounts that could be used to pay for private school or homeschooling expenses. However, 21 House Republicans voted last November alongside most Democrats in the lower chamber to kill a measure passed by the Senate that would have done just that. While five of the anti-school choice Republicans decided not to run for re-election, some 16 are trying to keep their seats this election cycle.

As of December 31, 2023, millions of dollars have been poured into these races, according to The Texan:

Incumbents Challengers
Gary VanDeaver (HD 1) – $128,624.25 Chris Spencer – $56,525.00 | Dale Huls – $42,776.51
Jay Dean (HD 7) – $112,698.64  Joe McDaniel – $8,055.01
Travis Clardy (HD 11) – $134,670.52 Joanne Shofner – $112,291.26
Ernest Bailes (HD 18) – $211,990.29 Janis Holt – $43,737.31
Justin Holland (HD 33) – $407,484.52 Katrina Pierson – $47,728.25 | Dennis London – $36,752.67
John Kuempel (HD 44) – $190,082.85 Alan Schoolcraft – $7,975.00 | Greg Switzer – $7,934.10
Hugh Shine (HD 55) –  $71,727.55 Hillary Hickland – $34,257.49
DeWayne Burns (HD 58) – $122,436.98 Helen Kerwin – $72,681.79
Glenn Rogers (HD 60) – $350,231.80 Mike Olcott – $138,436.94
Reggie Smith (HD 62) – $108,772.85 Shelley Luther – $8,514.01
Stan Lambert (HD 71) – $62,468.85 Liz Case – $13,152.98
Drew Darby (HD 72) – $207,554.39 Stormy Bradley – $26,385.26
Ken King (HD 88) – $167,528.80 Karen Post – $10,355.54
Charlie Geren (HD 99) – $352,506.15 Jack Reynolds – $2,443.09
Steve Allison (HD 121) – $219,633.03 Marc LaHood – $74,801.00


Even though the anti-school choice incumbents appear to have a fundraising edge as of the end of last year, Abbott has made it clear on the primary campaign trail that he is throwing his weight behind their challengers, as previously reported by The Dallas Express.

Between now and the end of the Republican primary in March, The Dallas Express will be taking an in-depth look at what has come to be one of the most important policy questions in the state — whether parents should be permitted to use taxpayer money to help defray the costs of public school alternatives they feel better fit the needs of their children.

In addition to following the key House races that could determine the fate of the proposed policy in Texas, The Dallas Express will be investigating how the absence of school choice has thus far affected Dallas and the families it comprises. If the dozens of existing charter schools in Dallas proper are any indication, there seems to be an appetite for an alternative to Dallas ISD and other school districts around the state.

“Over the last decade, enrollment in classical charter schools in Texas has increased sevenfold while enrollment in other charter schools has doubled,” reads a study published by the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF).

In a statement given last year to The Dallas Express, TPPF policy director James Quintero said, “Traditional K-12 schools are hemorrhaging enrollment due to growing concerns over content, quality, and the politicization of the classroom. This steep decline is evidence that parents are ready for something different, something better.”

The right-leaning group documented a creeping decline in enrollment at Dallas ISD between 2009-2010 and 2019-2020 that coincided with an ever-increasing trend in spending, which appeared to be confirmed by the left-leaning Hechinger Report, with the latter admitting that “[Dallas ISD] enrollment is declining steadily — by more than 10,000 since the 2018-19 school year.”

More recent reporting by The Dallas Express uncovered various collaborations with at least one local clinic that facilitates the administration of transgender hormones and a resource document made available to district families that offers guidance on how to go about “socially transitioning” genders.

Dallas ISD’s board of trustees adopted a roughly $2.5 billion budget for the 2023-2024 school year, seemingly spending at least some of it to facilitate Elizalde’s campaign against school choice legislation and the district’s bid — alongside dozens of other school districts — to prevent Texas families from being able to see their school districts’ TEA accountability ratings from the last school year because the grading methodology was updated to purportedly keep the state’s public school systems on a path toward improvement.

Keep reading as The Dallas Express works to shine a light on this policy issue, the forces behind it, and how the current education landscape in Dallas has affected the community.

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