Some Fly, Some Die

How DISD betrays children of color

"George Bush comes from a culture that has never understood," he says at last. "We are not going to allow somebody to come in here and establish a system that blames the victim, that says, oh, it's your fault you got mugged, because you should have known better than to go to the 7-Eleven store late at night."

The experiment with no-TAAS, no-pass in Houston may be fine and well, but the one Price and other Dallas minority leaders are looking at more closely is in Waco, a city they think is closer to Dallas in more than a geographic sense.

Last year Waco instituted a hard-line no-TAAS, no-pass rule that incorporated none of the stair-stepped phasing of either the Houston plan or Bush's proposed plan for the state. The Waco district, whose students score better on the TAAS tests than DISD students, flunked nearly 2,000 of the 16,000 kids in its system.

Many of the students held back were kids who had received good grades--some of them A's and B's--and had excellent attendance. The vast majority were black and Hispanic. Their parents sued the district, saying what Price is saying in Dallas--that if you give our kids passing or even good grades all year and they can't pass the TAAS test, why isn't that your fault?

Lawyers for the parents had to fight hard to get Waco school officials to produce real numbers showing the ethnicity of the students who had been held back. When the superintendent finally brought the numbers to a deposition, they showed Waco had flunked 53.3 percent of its black students, 37.1 percent of its Hispanic students, and 9.6 percent of its white students.

Price is haunted by the Waco example because he believes the NAACP-LULAC lawsuit in Dallas is just about to show why, in a world where it is possible to teach black and Hispanic kids to the same level as white kids, it hasn't happened in Dallas.

"We're about to have that data," he says. "There is data available to show where the bad teachers are. We're not on a witch-hunt or a bad-teacher-hunt here. We are looking for evidence of how the system has been complicit in a pattern of teacher dumping."

There is little question that the NAACP and LULAC eventually will prevail in their suit and will finally get their hands on the ITBS data they are seeking. A similar suit for exactly the same information in Austin several years ago resulted in the Austin school system's surrendering the data.

DISD is not even questioning the plaintiffs' legal right to obtain the data. Instead, the district is trying to stave off releasing it by arguing that the plaintiffs should have to pay several thousand dollars for it, a demand that the plaintiffs believe flouts the state's open-records law.

Just when Price and others believe they are about to be able to show how DISD has knowingly betrayed black and brown children over the years, they see the Bush initiative coming down the pike and appearing to shift blame and focus back on the kids.

"We say no to that," Price says angrily. "We are not going to let you blame the victim."

Of course, the Bush initiative is still fairly new. He has outlined it in one major speech, but it must be formalized and sent to the Legislature next year before there will be specifics to fight over. In the meantime, his staff says the goal of the initiative is not to flunk people out or blame anybody, but to force school systems to teach effectively.

"The reason the governor has called for an end to social promotion," says Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes, "is that he refuses to accept the idea that every single child in Texas cannot be taught. He wants to get rid of the excuses."

The Bush proposal, like Houston and unlike Waco, is stair-stepped and brings with it serious money and commitment to the retraining of teachers, especially in the early grades, so that they will all know what works and what doesn't. It calls for a total of $203 million in state funds through the year 2001 for teacher academies, tutoring, summer school--almost a whatever-it-takes approach to making sure teachers can teach and kids can read in Texas.

"He's not interested in placing blame," Hughes says. "He says, 'Let's fix the problem.'"

If there is a standoff shaping up over the social-promotion issue between Bush and minority leaders, their disagreement masks a more interesting area of agreement between them. They are both saying that Texas school districts can and should teach all kids to read by the end of the third grade.

The man who shrugs and laughs and talks about protecting existing staff, who sounds as if he doesn't really believe it can be done--DISD superintendent Hughey--is not in this picture. But education activist Russell Fish says it is precisely the Hughey factor that both Bush and the minority leaders ought to be worried about.

What about school districts that don't mind failure?
The Waco parents finally got thrown out of court because a judge found they had no standing to sue. The reason they had no standing to sue is what worries Fish.

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