By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
For the last several weeks, a certain story has emanated from the superintendent of schools in Dallas and also from a majority of the school board and a cast of lawyers. I paraphrase:
Dallas' splendid magnet schools and learning centers, the crown jewels of a beleaguered school system, must be gutted. Draconian cuts in staff and budget must be made to comply with new federal and state requirements. There can be no exceptions.
Then Monday evening the Texas Education Agency called up DISD and offered them exceptions for most of the system's magnet schools.
This last-minute reprieve from Austin came un-asked-for, unsought by the Dallas school system, a free gift. Maybe that's in the nature of mercy. As Shakespeare said, "It droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven."
So, good. Mercy dropped on us. We still face two questions. Why did mercy drop on us? And how?
The why is simple. It had everything to do with an uprising by parents, who besieged elected officials, begging for help. Specifically it had a lot to do with Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of the 30th District, who listened to the parents and then went straight to the U.S. Department of Education for what her office characterized as "clarification."
From here on out, parents of DISD students should know her as Congresswoman Eddie Bernice "Clarification" Johnson.
Officials in both the state and federal education agencies apparently looked at this grassfire coming their way and decided to plow some ground between it and themselves. So, even though DISD hadn't asked them for waivers from the rules that supposedly required gutting budgets, they gave waivers anyway.
But then we have the question, how? If new laws required the Dallas school system to gut the budgets of all its special schools, bringing them flat with the rest of the district, how could the TEA or even the USDE have allowed Dallas schools to skirt those laws?
Let me tell you a quick story. I was given the party line on this by a lawyer in Fort Worth, Ben Barlow, who has been doing the legal work on this question for the district. He told me the law was the law—school budgets have to be flat within certain parameters—and there can be no waivers of that requirement.
If the district fails to flatten the budgets, he said, it will forfeit federal Title I money, which in the case of Dallas would be some $100 million. That basically means you can't have magnet schools, because magnet schools are created by money—extra money for extra teachers and smaller classes.
Too bad, Barlow told me.
"Congress has passed a law prohibiting waivers," he said. "Now, Congress can change that law. I don't know that the [U.S.] Department of Education secretary can change that law. That's a law passed by Congress that probably has to be changed by them."
I am not a lawyer. I was impressed by what he told me. I hung up the phone and drove home that evening pondering these matters. But as I drove and pondered, a tiny little lightbulb lit up over my head, about the size of a Christmas-tree bulb at first, then larger, ever brighter.
Wait a minute, the bulb said. Congress passed a law outlawing magnet schools? Wouldn't that have been in the paper? In fact, might that not have been a major issue in the recent presidential election?
Yeah, it would have been. It would have been huge—a crude, ham-fisted intervention that would have been major, major news all over the nation, as it was here almost from the instant the Dallas school system floated the idea.
How could something this huge be true and nobody knew about it? It's what we might call an idiot test. Apparently most of the members of our school board flunked.
In other words, there never was a new law saying you had to gut all your magnet schools. Sure, a good lawyer could easily provide plausible legal cover for reducing the budgets. Remember that lawyers offered a plausible defense for Jeffrey Dahmer, who ate people.
You might recall that it was a team of lawyers who told our school board last November, when three members were worried about getting re-elected, to just go ahead and cancel the election. The lawyers said they could cover it. It turned out they were wrong. The Texas Attorney General later ruled that the district broke the law by canceling the election.
Now we see that the cover story for this assault on the magnets was just that—an invention of the board. The action by the TEA and USDE yanked the rug out from under it. Yes, there are exclusions, exceptions, waivers, whatever you want to call them—ways of avoiding gutting the budgets of the special schools—and there always have been.
The TEA/USDE action was based on one type of waiver only—a complex formula involving school populations. Another set of exceptions is available under desegregation principles. The Dallas school system still hasn't even broached that area with state or federal officials.