Todd Williams: We are failing Dallas County’s schoolkids

I left the private sector three years ago to volunteer my efforts full time toward education. I’d realized that whatever success I’d had was owed principally to teachers and mentors over the years who’d convinced me I could do anything in life if I studied hard and gave my best.

Growing up within a family living, at best, paycheck-to-paycheck in East Dallas, my access to a quality public education from Dallas ISD substantially changed my life trajectory. Austin College and 100 percent financial aid transformed it. I was blessed to live the American Dream.

Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, my story was very common. Today, it’s increasingly unique. And we, our collective community, must ask ourselves: Why?

Today, Dallas County has 500,000 K-12 students. Ninety-one percent of those students attend a public school. Poverty is pervasive; 70 percent of those students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Most importantly, only 13 percent of public school students who start ninth grade across Dallas County graduate four years later academically ready for higher education. For our Hispanic and African-American children, who collectively represent 80 percent of all first-grade children regionally, that number is 4 percent. These tragically low numbers represent our community’s future — and that future is increasingly worrisome.

We are collectively failing our children. Regardless of their ethnicity or ZIP code, they are our children and our region’s future depends on the success of all of them.

Too many of us have stopped fully supporting our public school system, believing that if we pay our property taxes, we’ve somehow done enough. But our educators and children need more than our dollars; they need us to share in the collective accountability for each child’s future, regardless of whether our own children are grown or attend school elsewhere. Educators cannot, and must not, be asked to stem the cycle of poverty alone.

When is the last time each of us did the following? Encouraged our own offspring to consider becoming a public school teacher. Asked our company to adopt a school. Personally mentored a child, volunteered or provided an internship. Thanked a school board trustee for serving countless hours in an unpaid role. Voted in a school board election? Held our representatives truly accountable for working meaningfully to improve our education system.

Within DISD, we pay over $1.4 billion in taxes, yet less than 2 percent of us vote in school board elections. The 2011 elections were canceled due to lack of candidates. We allow select media to focus more on reporting scandal and conflict among educators instead of discussing academic progress, best practices and remaining challenges.

We watched the state decimate pre-K funding in 2011 while concurrently growing prison expenditures. We watched legislators cut $5 billion of resources for public K-12 education (taking us to the bottom 10 percent of the nation in per-pupil funding while college readiness levels remain wholly inadequate) and said little.

We do this because we either believe public education can’t be improved or we just turn away in disbelief or denial that our collective failure won’t significantly impact our community’s future in terms of workforce or neighborhood vitality. The sheer size of the numbers states otherwise.

But there is real hope. Proof points abound that all children are absolutely capable of learning, regardless of parental involvement levels. Countless effective teachers throughout our region are achieving outlier results with children from the same challenging demographics. Hundreds of best practices are worth spreading.

Businesses, foundations and individuals are increasingly getting involved. Thousands of volunteers are asking how to serve. While our community resources are not inexhaustible, they are plentiful, and if invested wisely could have dramatic impact on the lives of our children.

But most importantly, all of us need to collectively recommit to ensuring quality, universal public education by holding ourselves (and not just parents or educators) mutually accountable. The often well-publicized but ultimately unproductive finger pointing among adults, while the collective lives of our children, and our community’s future, wither on the vine, must stop. The problem is urgent, it is solvable, and it is ours.

Todd Williams is the education adviser to Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and the executive director of Commit!, a nonprofit focused on supporting education throughout Dallas County. He can be reached at

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