The Fort Worth City Council seems like an unconventional elected body to tackle improving education, but some local leaders say the task falls squarely on them.

Civic and philanthropic leaders believe council members have the power to forge a path toward building a level playing field for all students in Fort Worth, where only one out of three of students in Fort Worth are on grade level. School board members are open to this approach. However, some residents may see this as inserting even more politics into education, according to a school leadership expert.

Pete Geren, president and CEO of the nonprofit Sid W. Richardson Foundation, wants to see City Council members be a bigger player in education despite it not falling under their formal responsibilities. Geren talked in September about the idea to the Downtown Fort Worth Rotary Club.

Council members can support schools just like a new business coming into their district, Geren said. They can bring the right people to the table to ensure whatever problem a school faces is solved. Council members also must be forceful and honest to schools — which often are one of the biggest employers in their districts — when they are not performing at a satisfactory level, the former congressman added.

Fort Worth has nearly 160,000 students, more than 100 school board members, 15 charter leaders and 12 superintendents. For comparison, the Fort Worth City Council currently has nine members; next year, it will increase to 11. The responsibility of education is spread among too many people to bring about change for the entire city, Geren said.

Council members have a larger and more influential platform that could improve traditional public and charter schools across the city, Geren said. 

“Democracy is failing our children right now,” Geren told the Fort Worth Report. “It’s a city problem.”

Outside formal powers

This approach is used elsewhere nationally, but the idea of having city leaders take charge of education is new in Texas.

Across the nation, 17 city governments operate schools. Those include major cities like New York City and even smaller cities like Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and New Haven, Connecticut. None of the cities tasked with running schools are in Texas.

Texas puts that power to the more than 1,000 independent school districts carved throughout the state. School districts have their own elected board of trustees, a superintendent and levy a property tax.

Geren’s proposal would not do away with any of that existing structure. He sees the Fort Worth City Council taking on education as an extension of its informal powers and working alongside school leaders to find ways to support students. 

Council members often take action on issues outside of their responsibilities, Geren said.

For example, if electricity goes out for an extended period, City Council members will hear from their constituents.

“And the City Council member is going to be on the phone with Oncor,” Geren said. “That’s not a city business. The city doesn’t control it or operate it, but that City Council member is going to raise it if their constituents don’t have light.”

The same is true of schools. Without good, healthy schools, City Council districts could see higher crime rates and more health issues with residents, Geren said. Additionally, good schools are ways to bring economic development and more residents to a community.

Grant Coates, CEO and president of the Miles Foundation, also wants the Fort Worth City Council more involved in education. 

“The more people who are paying attention, showing interest and showing support, it lifts the issue to the front of everybody’s mind,” Coates said. “The success of our great city largely depends on an educated citizenry.”

Tackling ancillary issues, such as access to healthy food and health care, could have an impact on schools, said Jo Beth Jimerson, an associate professor in Texas Christian University’s College of Education. 

A council member has power to improve the quality of life in their district, she said. Solving these issues seemingly on the edge of education could mean better student performance.

“It’s all interconnected,” Jimerson said. “They seem disconnected, but they are not. Having the ability to take care of my child and position them well in school is critical.”

Council members also could act as brokers between school systems in Fort Worth, Jimerson said. They can learn best practices from each other, learn what is and isn’t working and hear about their respective challenges. All of this builds up trust and creates a network that could improve schools across the city.

“If we’re going to have this great city, we’re going to need people to be educated, and we shouldn’t just leave that to the people who operate the school board,” Coates said.

‘Separate them from their politics’

Jimerson, though, acknowledged that involving the Fort Worth City Council in education could have some downsides.

One con is that some residents may view council members as injecting even more politics into education. This feeling could be amplified based on how a person views a council member, Jimerson said.

“If I already think that Councilman or Councilwoman X is hyper politicized and I already don’t like them, I really don’t want them being involved in my school, and I see that as overreach,” Jimerson said. “If I like them, of course, then I love that idea.”

One possible key to getting council members involved in education is for them to acknowledge the politics of the situation and address it head on, the TCU professor said. They have to be clear in what their priorities are and communicate them to residents. 

Additionally, council members have to be honest when they do not know something about education. If they don’t do that, a council member could amount to a talking head, Jimerson said. 

“When people like to pretend they know it all or they take one little nugget and then extrapolate a whole bunch of policy from it, that makes me a little more suspicious of where they’re going,” she said.

Council members have to tell residents how their involvement will be different from any other previous attempt at trying to improve education. They must be intentional about how they want to improve education, Jimerson said.

All of this could help with the possible politicization issues, she added. 

“Otherwise, I don’t know that people will be able to separate them from their politics,” Jimerson said.

‘Strengthen opportunities’

Fort Worth ISD school board President Tobi Jackson listens during an Aug. 30 school board meeting. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

Tobi Jackson, the Fort Worth ISD school board president, supports Geren’s proposal. 

“Anytime we involve more elected officials in the education of our youth, we strengthen opportunities for our youth,” Jackson said.

However, she wants it pushed even further. She wants to see all 19 school districts in Tarrant County working together. The Commissioners Court would be an even better way to improve education, Jackson said.

Commissioners stay in office longer. They have four-year terms while the Fort Worth City Council has two-year terms. School board terms can vary; state law allows trustees to have three- or four-year terms. Stability is key to ensure schools keep improving, Jackson said.

Regardless of whether the county or city helps in education, Jackson believes student outcomes could see a boost if other local governments were more prominent players with schools. 

Jackson believes the city and county can tackle the issues on the peripherals of education, like improving transportation, providing workforce development and a more coordinated school safety response between all districts.

Using city policy to help education

Council member Michael Crain says the City Council can write and approve policies to improve education in Fort Worth.

District 3 City Councilmember Michael Crain greets people on May 3 at the Texas Wesleyan University field groundbreaking. (Cristian ArguetaSoto | Fort Worth Report)

One area where Crain sees where the Fort Worth City Council can play a more outsized role is writing policy to designate school traffic zones around charter and private schools. Traditional public schools have traffic zones. Many private schools and charters, which are publicly funded, do not.

The way the city’s school zone ordinance is written does not mean charter and private schools automatically get one, Crain said.

Crain recognizes he has an influential platform. He knows that if schools inside his district are not meeting the needs of residents, he can do something about it. He can hold education officials accountable for the state of their schools. He also knows if residents' needs are met with existing schools, he can advocate for another education institution to come in and fill that void.

Other Fort Worth City Council members have done that. Council member Chris Nettles was among the backers of Academy of Visual and Performing Arts, a new charter school setting up in south Fort Worth. Nettles previously told the Report he threw his support behind the school because of the low performance of campuses inside his council district.

“However, we can bridge that gap to get them into a better educational system, I support it 100%,” Nettles previously said. “I’m not saying that this school is the savior, but what I am saying is more options can increase education.”

The Fort Worth ISD school board president does not have an issue with council members supporting charter schools, which she said must offer something different than traditional public schools. 

However, Jackson wants the City Council to ensure charter schools are complementary to communities and existing campuses. Placing a charter next to a public school or even a private school may not be the best use of resources, she said.

“If this school focuses on international business and language, man, that is a killer. If you’ve got it next door to a STEM school, now that is a totally different deal,” Jackson said. “But if you have two schools next door to each other just doing K-8 operations and traditional (state) aligned curriculum, how’s that any better?”

Mayor Mattie Parker planted her flag on education on the campaign trail in 2021. She even made it a focal point of her 2022 State of the City address. She created the Council on Education and Workforce Development to push more students to graduate high school with an associate degree or industry certification and are ready for the workforce.

“As mayor, (education is) the most important work I’ll do because I can try to fix roads and street lights and fund police. But if we don’t really have a systemic solution to education, we’ll wake up in 20, 30 years and you will not recognize this state for all the wrong reasons,” Parker said at an education event in September. 

Students gather around Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker for a photo.
Students in iEngage, a summer camp focused on civics education, gather around Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker for a group photo on Thursday, July 28, at Texas Christian University. (Jacob Sanchez | Fort Worth Report)

‘It’s going to take time’

Although there are high hurdles, Jimerson believes Fort Worth could be a good place for a city council to take on education. Fort Worth’s moderate politics, history of bipartisanship and elected leaders from both sides of the aisle are qualities that could be a boost. 

Leaders rallying behind education would be significant, the professor said.

“That would send a signal to a lot of people and be encouraging that we can find a way to focus on kids in schools and supporting kids and supporting teachers,” Jimerson said. 

Council members are best positioned to insist their communities have better schools and to push for educators to teach the future of Fort Worth, said Geren, the Sid W. Richardson Foundation president.

However, all of this work will not bear fruit instantly.

“Democracy is slow. It’s never one and done. Democracy works. The public has to be informed and it has to engage and it has to be persistent. If we’re missing any of those three things, we’re going to get schools that perform down here,” Geren said, pointing to a document showing some of the worst-performing school systems in Texas.

Geren also brought up another piece to remember: Most children are in their grade level only once.

“If you don’t teach that child to read in third grade, you have failed the child — and it’s a moral failure,” Geren said.

Disclosure: The Sid W. Richardson Foundation and the Miles Foundation have been financial supporters of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jacob SanchezEnterprise Reporter

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University....