But what runs beneath all of this? Why would anybody want to gut the magnets or the learning centers? Let's consider that.

As embattled as our urban public school system may have been during the past 30 years, it's still an excellent indicator of the city's core character and ambition. That's really what's on the table in the school board's current debate on special schools.

Does the city—not the region, not the Park Cities or the suburbs, but the city of Dallas—hope to be a pluralistic meritocracy: a place embracing social and economic highs and lows, home for people of modest attainment as well as for people who achieve many kinds of success?

The story from superintendent of schools Michael Hinojosa, shown
here whispering with board member Edwin Flores, was that the
district’s hands were tied. Obviously that wasn’t the case.
Mark Graham
The story from superintendent of schools Michael Hinojosa, shown here whispering with board member Edwin Flores, was that the district’s hands were tied. Obviously that wasn’t the case.

Or does Dallas really intend to be a kind of labor pool? Should the city become a supply depot of workers for the surrounding nodes of affluence?

Up until this week, the Dallas school system seemed to be squarely aimed at the labor pool option. Claiming they were under a gun from state and federal officials, the school board and administration were poised to slash budgets and faculty at the district's nine magnet schools and 16 learning centers.

Magnets and learning centers are enriched schools that operate on fatter budgets than regular schools. In 2003 when the district was persuading a federal judge to release it from a 32-year-old desegregation suit, the full school board signed a contract promising to maintain both types of schools.

Since then both types of schools—but especially the magnets—have emerged as engines of meritocracy. The magnets attract plenty of well-off kids but also serve huge numbers of students who receive free lunches because they are not well off.

Do the magnets serve only smart kids? What do you mean by smart? New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently about new theories which chalk up intelligence more to the old Carnegie Hall adage—practice, practice, practice—than any kind of unearned genetic gift.

Hard work, in other words. Diligence. Discipline. Those are all elements of smart, because they are all elements of success. And it's smart to succeed, isn't it?

The point is, you either do or do not reward success. The magnets and the learning centers are shrines to special effort and a certain amount of payoff for that effort. Slashing them to a flat level with the rest of the district is an expression of what I call muscular egalitarianism, by which I mean egalitarianism that kicks your ass every time you raise your hand.

Let's face it. Part of the reward you can give to kids who work hard and strive to succeed is a welcoming climate in which to do it. I remember something my wife and I were told years ago by a friend, Susan Feibelman (now at an elite private school in the Northeast), when she was dean of instruction at the Dallas Talented and Gifted Magnet High School. I can't quote her exactly because it has been too long, so I will paraphrase:

The TAG Magnet is the only place where most of my kids can be regular high school kids. Because they're so smart, most of them would be marginalized at the neighborhood high schools. At the neighborhood schools, the jocks and the social kids own the halls, which is OK. But at my school, the smart kids own the halls, and they're all so smart, they don't even think of themselves as the smart kids. Here, they're just kids.

Why wouldn't we want to provide that kind of climate for exceptional kids, whether they are exceptionally smart, exceptionally talented or just kids who practice, practice, practice?

Who is it exactly who believes that the city's school system should not strive for islands of excellence? And do they not believe the city itself should embrace islands of excellence?

There is another whole story here about desegregation, which I will get to in a future column. In the course of reporting this story, I have heard things from school officials that made the hair stand up on my neck: There are people at 3700 Ross Avenue who believe that the plaintiffs in Tasby, the city's 32-year-old deseg case, were defeated, and Dallas has no obligations under the judge's final order.

To me, the idea that people in the school system haven't come to peace with desegregation in the Year 2009 is every bit as disturbing as their desire to gut the magnets.

It all tells us the same thing. We have to decide what kind of school system we want, because that's how we decide what kind of city we intend to become.

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