Hey DISD Trustees! Do the Math on Magnet Schools.

Magnets just aren’t the budget-busters trustees are pretending they are.

A concerted effort is under way to pit communities against each other—especially Hispanic against black—over public school resources in Dallas. It's sort of like going to a starving village somewhere and spreading rumors about secret midnight feasts. It is not an effort with virtue in its heart.

But, look, let's talk another day about why anybody would want to do that. Right now, it's more important for us to focus on what's true and what isn't.

The big lie is that the magnet schools in Dallas are the secret feast—fatter, richer and more luxurious than what everybody else is stuck with.

That isn't true.

Take the high schools. There are 35 Dallas Independent School District high schools with fully reported budgets available on the Texas Education Agency Web site. DISD has 10 magnet high schools, according to its own Web page.

I put together a cheapo Excel spreadsheet, taking the total expenditure on each campus and dividing it by the total enrollment to get a campus expenditure per student.

Of the 10 magnet high schools, eight are below the average per-student expenditure, some way below. Eight magnets are in the bottom quarter of the list.

You want to know where the big money is? If you want to get your kid into a really expensive Dallas high school, you need to encourage him or her to get arrested, get pregnant, drop out or, for some reason that I can't quite fathom, go to James Madison High School, a regular "comprehensive" or neighborhood school.

The really big money is in getting knocked up. The Maya Angelou School (for the pregnant) spends three times the district-wide per-student average, a whopping $19,212. Next comes Redirections, which I hear is a really good school for potential dropouts, at $12,945 a head.

Then Madison weighs in at $11,127 per-student per year. The fourth richest is Village Fair, which we always called "The Prison School" when we were in DISD. It spends $9,596 per inmate.

Finally when you get down to No. 5, you find the Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts magnet, which spends $8,542 per student. This is the first one we find on the list that seems to be rewarding positive behaviors, with the possible exception of Madison, which is just a mystery.

I asked school district spokesman Jon Dahlander to explain Madison and Angelou to me. Never heard back.

Certainly I'm not suggesting that either the Maya Angelou school or Redirections is a bad thing. More power to them. But let's get over this idea that the district spends more money on the kids in the magnets than on the kids in the regular high schools.

Think about it. The magnets give up all kinds of things in order to invest in instruction. Sports, for one. That's a tough one. When my son was in DISD, we knew several kids who could have gotten into magnets but decided not to attend because they wanted to play one or more team sports.

There are other savings. I don't want to make magnet kids out to be wimps or anything, but generally speaking a magnet high school can run with a lower ratio of armed guards per student than the regular schools. At Booker T. all they really need is someone in the hall with the authority to insult people's hairstyles.

The Talented and Gifted Magnet, for example, is No. 10 on my list of high schools in terms of per-student expenditure, at $6,981 per-kid per year. Four neighborhood schools—Thomas Jefferson, Hillcrest, Roosevelt and Madison—spend more. Hillcrest, where Superintendent Michael Hinojosa's son has been a student, spends almost a grand more per kid than TAG.

The two DISD high schools that have received the most national recognition are TAG and Science and Engineering. Science and Engineering is No. 29 on the list, at $4,489 per kid. That's less than half what Madison spends and less than a fourth of what the district will spend on you for getting yourself with child.

Precisely because the magnets know they have a spotlight on them, they're pretty careful about their ethnic ratios. TAG, for example, is 30.2 percent black, 30.2 percent Hispanic and 32.6 percent white. The city in the last census was 50.8 percent white, 35.6 percent Hispanic and 25.9 percent black.

The entire district is 51.7 percent Hispanic, 38 percent black and 8.7 percent white, according to numbers from the TEA.

Some magnets come closer to reflecting the district-wide ethnic ratios. The School of Health Professionals, for example, is 47 percent Hispanic, 38.3 percent black and 8.7 percent white.

I guess if you really want to, you can mount an argument that the TAG high school is whiter than the district. But then you have to answer the question: Which ratio are we going for anyway? TAG isn't as white as the city, nor presumably does it reflect the population of taxpayers. And, anyway, we are products of our own history, and therefore we do need to stop every once in a while and reflect on the history of the magnet program.

The magnets were created as a part of a federal court effort to keep white people in the district. It's called desegregation, and it's an important part of our national history, experience and character.

I don't want to get too lyrical here about the value of white people and start sounding like some kind of neo-confederate. Many of the white people I have known in my own life have been more trouble than they were worth. And the origin of school desegregation was not a racially neutral pursuit of equal opportunity for everybody: It was a campaign to force white people to stop actively harming black kids.

But.

In this day and age, deseg does run in both directions or in all directions. Correct me—I know you will—if I am wrong, but I believe the values of the nation still favor diversity over one-race rule.

Sadly, a lot of what I thought I was hearing from the audience at the last school board meeting sounded more ethnically triumphal than inclusive. Adelfa Callejo, the grand dame of Dallas Hispanic politics, rose from the audience to denounce the basic rationale behind spending money on special schools to redress past wrongs.

"As a matter of fact, we all know that the court's reason for ordering their creation also no longer exists," she said. "The demographics have changed. The ethnic student populations are completely different today."

So, now that the district is majority Hispanic, diversity is no longer a worthwhile goal? Now it's a bad idea to spend money to attract and retain white or black people?

Callejo is deservedly a respected spokesperson for her community, but at the school board meeting she clearly was part of a claque that had come to express a party line, couched as support for superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

A Hispanic mother rose from the audience right after Callejo and expressed the view that extra money spent on magnet schools and learning centers is money taken away from her own children. In fact, she said, the existence of the magnets and learning centers rendered her children "a second-class or a second kind of citizen."

She said, "Some kids can go to one school, and they can receive more money than our kids."

I'm sure the speeches by parents and kids in support of magnets and learning centers last Thursday night were somewhat rehearsed and coordinated. But clearly the speeches in support of Hinojosa all contained the same carefully rehearsed and pernicious theme of envy—the idea that centers of success in the district work an injury on all who are not in them.

A student from W.T. White High School asked, "Why should they get more?"

I wish I had already done my spreadsheet by then. I might have been able to reassure her that she's getting more money spent on her at W.T. White than the students at Skyline Magnet, Science and Engineering Magnet, the Education Magnet, the Health Magnet or the Law Magnet. Pity the kids at the Business Magnet, who get a little better than half the money spent on them that kids at W.T. White receive.

After the board meeting I spoke with longtime community activist, organizer, thinker and playwright John Fullinwider, who expressed empathy for both sides—the ones who want to keep the magnets and learning centers intact and the kids and parents who came to defend the regular neighborhood schools.

"It's terrible that somebody is trying to set one group against the other," he said.

The district is always described as beleaguered. I'm guilty of describing it that way myself. It's not an inaccurate description, but it's notably incomplete. DISD also has seen great successes in the last few years under Hinojosa's leadership in student achievement and test scores.

Look around South Dallas, West Dallas and East Dallas where most of the city's working class and people of color live, and you can't help seeing signs of upward mobility and achievement—not the dismal downward spiral that characterized most American inner cities only a decade ago.

Something is in the air—something good and hopeful. It's still more a potential than a reality, more of a chance at opportunity than an actual opportunity. But certainly part of the reason for even that chance to exist is the historic struggle to desegregate the public schools, including the hard-fought fight for magnets and learning centers.

"That money wasn't taken from the other schools," Fullinwider said. "This money was won through four decades of legal and political struggle."

There still are great imbalances, he suggested, but the way to fix them is not by pulling someone else back down the hill. "There are two ways to fix an imbalance," he said. "One is to bring up the other side."

Maybe before this battle over magnets and learning centers is over we will find our way to a mutual salvation, as opposed to the suicide pact the school district seems to be pursuing now.

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