One honest man

How come the Dallas schools can't find him?

Ruth Houston, immediate past president of the Dallas PTA and a respected grassroots organizer on school issues, said, "Everything at 3700 Ross now is a secret. You go and ask for information, and they say, 'Did you clear that with so and so?'"

The really good news, in all of this, is that smart people in the community have been giving the schools a lot of thought and are beginning to come up with a variety of ideas for making things better. You don't have to agree with any specific idea: It's just good to know people are tossing some things around.

Britt, for example, says we have the same problem on the school board that we have on the city council: If we want to attract more people to the office of school board member, he says, we will probably have to offer something like a full-time salary. "You need some people on the board who understand the role of a board of directors," he said. "You almost hate to say it, but you are going to have to pay these folks. If you don't pay them, you're not going to get the best the city has to offer."

John Fullinwider is one of many community leaders who have specific ideas for fixing the mess at Dallas school headquarters.
Mark Graham
John Fullinwider is one of many community leaders who have specific ideas for fixing the mess at Dallas school headquarters.

Fullinwider, the community activist and teacher, thinks there are structural changes in school governance that could help the board do a better job. "The board does not have any structural way of receiving citizen input. They don't have a plan commission, the way the city council does, or an urban rehab standards board."

He suggests the board would be able to concentrate more on true policy issues if there were formal bodies beneath it where citizens and other interests were required to take their issues for a first hearing. "We need to institutionalize some other layers of citizen input, so a program like Edison Schools would have to filter up to the board instead of just getting dumped on them cold."

I ran that idea by school board member Lois Parrott, who snapped to it right away. "At least that would get the contractors off our backs," she said.

If there were to be some broad-based, truly grass-roots initiatives for change, some of us might have to go into it prepared to give up or at least compromise on our most dearly held beliefs. In recent years, I had come around to the idea that the school district really needs to get out of court--that is, persuade U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders and the various parties to the decades-old desegregation suit that it's over.

But a number of people with whom I spoke this week pointed me to the work of the Harvard Project on School Desegregation and its director, Gary Orfield. Studies by the Harvard Project have shown that in cities where federal desegregation orders have been lifted, segregation has grown markedly worse, as have test scores for minority students. Orfield argues that the "re-segregation" of urban schools is bad for both white and minority students.

So maybe the court's influence and the suit itself aren't as negative as some people think. The point, anyway, is not that anybody's single idea here is the shining banner. It's more that people are thinking. They care. The seeds of change are out there.

The people who have been out there trying are much less cynical about the chances for success, I found, than the rest of us who are just guessing. As PTA president, Ruth Houston spent a lot of time trying to enlist parents in the cause and is still at it. She says it absolutely can be done. "They're busy. They're working two jobs. You have to get out there, and you have to be talking to the parents sitting out there waiting for their kids to get off school. But once you explain it to them and the light goes on, those parents will do anything to help."

Glenn M. Linden, an SMU professor who is author of the 1995 book Desegregating Schools in Dallas, is one of a number of citizens who have been working with the Greater Dallas Human Relations Commission and the League of Women Voters to come up with ideas for the schools. Linden is a student of both education and history, but when he talks about what it might take to really ignite a movement in Dallas, he goes Biblical:

"Think of the Bible. If there are enough right-minded people around him, one poor man can save the city."

You know whom I thought of immediately when Linden said that? Gee, I hope the guy doesn't think I'm volunteering him. I don't mean that at all. Just as an example.

Tim Daniels.

He's the guy, remember, who had never been involved in city politics at all, but he heard about the city closing all the neighborhood swimming pools for poor kids, and he decided to do something about it.

A whole bunch of noise and about $100,000 in private donations later, he did it. He saved our pools. One guy. The spark was lighted in him, and he became the torch. He turned the whole city around. He fought City Hall and won.

So maybe that's what our children need. A Tim Daniels for the schools.

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