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.

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.

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.

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?

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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