Some Fly, Some Die

How DISD betrays children of color

"There is no legal obligation in the Texas education code for a school district to teach anything," he says.

In fact, the Texas code contains reams of language about who must be taught and what and how and where and when. But Fish's point is that the law doesn't require school systems to bring students up to any minimal tested achievement level.

That's what Bush wants to do. But the remedy in his plan for districts that fail to bring a student to the mark is to flunk the kid.

Fish says, "In Waco, the superintendent threw up her arms and said, 'We did our best, that's all we know how to do,' and the judge told the parents, 'Get outta here. That's all they can do. You can't make them teach your kids.'"

If a kid is flunked, and if the parents believe the kid was flunked because of deliberate misfeasance by the school district--patterns of teacher dumping, an institutional disbelief that minority kids can be taught--the Bush plan leaves them nowhere. They can't bring the school district to task, because Texas law doesn't obligate the district to do a good job.

They can move to the suburbs, if they have the money. If they don't, they can stick their kid back in the same incompetent system that flunked him in the first place and just leave him there until he's really wiped out and finally drops out.

Fish thinks there is a patch or repair to the Bush initiative that might even bridge the gap between Bush's view of the issue and John Wiley Price's view. As long as everybody is in a mood to hold everybody else's feet to the fire, Fish thinks the Bush people need to support changes in the law that would help parents give their school district a nice little hot-foot too.

"We need language in the law that says that 'a school district shall use affirmative action to ensure that all students are effectively taught,'" he says. "That gives parents grounds to sue."

That way, he says, it's a two-way street. You want to flunk my kid, who's black, because he didn't pass the TAAS test? You better hope I can't go to court and prove that you have negligently failed to use proven, readily available techniques that have brought black children up to speed in other districts.

The idea is not without its own prickly set of controversies and problems. Fish says early response from the governor's staff has been that they're not going to support something that will plunge school districts all over the state into years of crippling litigation.

There are ways to work around that danger by wholesaling the remedies; that is, if you sue, the law provides that you just get your money back. Here's your tax money. Take it and go find a better school.

That's a voucher system. And vouchers are viewed with great distrust by many minority leaders, who see them as bleeding public education.

But that happens to be another thing Houston has done voluntarily. Last May the Houston school board approved a plan to allow HISD students who fail the TAAS test to attend private schools instead of returning to HISD. HISD gives them $3,575 a year per student--a little better than the money HISD collects for each kid in local taxes.

It was HISD superintendent Paige's idea. He said using the district-contracted private schools was the most cost-effective way to help kids who needed help. But some minority leaders in Houston, far from fearing vouchers, felt that hitting the bureaucracy in the money belt was a good way to goad it to do better.

And do better it does. Way better than Dallas. If nothing changes and the trends in both cities remain more or less what they are today, in 10 years Houston is going to be turning out better-performing students than Plano, and Dallas is going to be turning out more failures and drop-outs than San Antonio, where 44 percent of black kids and 43 percent of Hispanic kids flunked the third-grade reading portion of the TAAS test last year.

One of the great shames--especially given the numbers and the failure rates in Dallas--is that this issue always has to be framed in strictly racial and ethnic terms, as if it were a problem of black people and Hispanics. The students in Dallas who do worse than any others in comparison to their ethnic counterparts in Houston, are, after all, the white kids.

This was a difficult, unpleasant, painful story to report because of the stakes involved. Every year thousands of beautiful new children are presented to the Dallas Independent School District, exuberantly curious, adventurous, hungry for life, ready to rock and roll.

It's very difficult to hear some of the people who care about them most and who are most familiar with their fate describe them by saying things like, "They're toast."

Even though the issues we are talking about are intellectual and spiritual, not physical, the image is still of charring. The charring of children.

There are lots of people within the DISD structure who know what's wrong and how wrong it is. Some of them are there because they are committed to changing it. At one point a DISD administrator closed the door and said to me, absolutely off the record, "I believe that, if there is evidence out there of an effective way to teach these children, and if the district and the school board continue to ignore that evidence and continue to fail to teach them effectively, then what they are doing is deeply, deeply immoral."

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