Big Old Grain of Salt on all Those Dallas Morning News DISD Stories

Monday, I look at The Dallas Morning News, and I see a headline, "Dallas ISD likely breaking attendance law, former lawmaker says." So immediately right there in the same headline I see a lawmaker and a lawbreaker. I've already got a mental image of somebody at school headquarters in cuffs with his coat over his head getting pushed into a van.

The story says Dallas has been allowing kids to graduate from high school who may not have met school attendance requirements in state law. The former lawmaker they quote, Scott Hochberg, a Democrat of Houston who retired last year, is the person who wrote the relevant law.

He's quoted in the story saying, "They [Dallas schools) are violating the law. To me, that's no different than to just give credit if the student never showed up."

The law he refers to is part of the Texas Education Code. It says a kid who doesn't hit the required 90 percent attendance rate in a course can get the credit anyway, but only if he masters the course material under a program set up and monitored by the school principal. The Morning News story was based on an internal DISD audit that found there was not a reliable district-wide accounting system for all of the makeup programs set up by principals at all of the schools.

So here are the hoops you have to jump through to get to the headline: audit finds lack of proper attendance accounting. Lots more kids graduating these days. Maybe they didn't attend 90 percent of their classes. Maybe they got course credit anyway. Law requires accounting. District has bad accounting. Law is being broken. Lock'em up!

But I have a problem. Hochberg's quote, "no different than to just give credit if the student never showed up," is awfully unqualified, especially from a guy in Houston talking about a situation in Dallas. How much of the background here can he know? And he's a Hochberg.

Hochbergs are smart. I worked for The Houston Chronicle for a while back in the day. Scott Hochberg is a known factor in Houston and a respected voice in Texas education circles statewide. He's got two brothers, now professors, who were well regarded national television news correspondents. I don't think any Hochbergs are shoot-from-the-hip types, and the quote in the News sounded shoot-from-the-hippy.

After I read the story in the News, I spoke with a couple of highly placed people at Dallas school headquarters who both told me that the students in question here are kids who have mastered the course work, no matter what their attendance issues may be.

The people I talked to didn't deny that the district may need a more locked-down system for keeping track both of attendance and of makeup programs. But they said the scenario here is not going to turn out to involve kids who never showed up, never mastered the coursework and got credit anyway.

So anyway that's what they assert. We don't know. That will take some checking, which the district is now supposed to be doing because of the audit.

Then I called Scott Hochberg. He did not back down from his quote, at least not in the abstract. To get credit, students must do the work. "It's one of the clearest pieces of legislation I ever wrote," he said.

But Hochberg said the change in the education code that he authored regarding making up attendance was "part of a bill that provided a number of pieces of flexibility, on age limits, on the hours when school could meet, all designed to provide more options for a student who would likely drop out or who already had dropped out. But it was always with the understanding that you weren't cutting corners on the class itself."

He said he crafted the bill in response to a Houston principal who had said to him, "'We make it so easy to drop out and so hard to drop back in.'

"He knew kids were going to drop out for good reasons or bad reasons or because mamma needed help paying the rent and they had to go to work," he said. "He was always looking for ways to make it easy for somebody to get back in, if they were willing to do the work."

I told him that board members and the superintendent in Dallas were saying the kids involved in the recent audit here were students who had mastered the work and were passing their courses.

"If they've completed the work," he said, "then it's not a question."

Then he added a little something that gave me some flavor for how the lock-'em-up piece in the News may have come about: "What I said to Mr. [Matthew] Haag [the reporter] was, he asked me, if they we were doing nothing but cleaning the gym or any one of the other things that had been alleged and if they were not on any kind of a principal plan, would that be consistent with the law? And I said no it wouldn't.

"But I also said I was in no position to know whether any of the allegations were true or not."

So, in context, Hochberg is hardly the martinet that comes across in the Morning News story, standing in the schoolhouse door with a riding crop insisting attendance is the only thing that counts. In fact he devoted a good deal of his career in the Legislature to keeping kids in schools and boosting graduation rates, not running them off for poor attendance.

I have to put two other things into evidence here. One is a piece I wrote a couple days ago about a story in the News in which the headline and lede told Morning News readers that an outside investigation had cleared a guy recently fired by the school district and found he had broken no laws. But attached to the story was the report itself, which said the guy and his staff had done of every single thing they looked at and had, indeed, broken the law.

See also: DMN Says Fired School Sleuth Didn't Break Rules

The other thing is an editorial that ran in yesterday's News , written after somebody on the editorial board talked to Dallas Superintendent Mike Miles about the Hochberg story. The editorial board tried to let Haag, the reporter on the lock-'em-up story, down easy, saying the district's vastly improved graduation rates were "troubling," because of the poor attendance accounting. But that was eyewash. Basically the editorial was what we in the business call a "skinback."

It said, "... in an interview Tuesday afternoon, Miles said that while graduation rates are important, his focus has always been on ensuring students are ready for college, not simply making sure they get a diploma. He's right. Ultimately, that is the more important standard."

Yeah. Given any decent amount of context, this was a story about sloppy accounting that needs to be fixed, not a story about a major fraud, breaking the law or running the district the wrong way. As the editorial finally gets around to saying, Miles is going at things the right way on the fundamentals, and the accounting thing is merely paperwork. It's paperwork that needs to be done properly and according to the law. But it's paperwork.

Taken all together, what all of this should tell you is this. Keep a great big grain of salt at the ready when you sit down to read The Dallas Morning News's coverage of the school district.

For whatever reason -- totally incomprehensible to me, especially given the more enlightened view of the editorial page -- the newsroom operation over there is going to blow every single school district molehill up into a mountain if they can, even when their own headlines directly contradict the stuff they put at the bottoms of their own stories. Can't explain it. Just do the salt.

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