The elephant in Dallas ISD's living room is segregation. Has been for decades. Before 1970, when Sam Tasby sued to force the district to integrate, the issue was the Jim Crow-style separation of blacks and whites. Since then, it's been the flight of whites (who now account for 4 percent of DISD's population) and the middle-class of all races (which, broadly defined, makes up about 14 percent of district enrollment). The mechanism changed but the end result — a school system filled with campuses that are homogeneously poor and minority — has been the same.
It's a fraught subject, one that conjures up Dallas' ugly racial history and the uncomfortable notion that we've never really left it behind. It's also one that's so mind-bogglingly large and complicated that the natural response is to throw up one's hands and focus on more achievable goals like fixing up decrepit buildings and putting more teachers in struggling schools. Historically, this has been DISD's approach.
There are signs that dynamic is changing. One came last Thursday when Mike Koprowski, the district's chief of transformation and innovation, gave trustees a sobering report on segregation in Dallas, which is increasing, and the pressing need to reverse it through smart, farsighted policies. In the meantime, Koprowski is working to ameliorate some of its effects by expanding "schools of choice," which have specialized programs akin to magnet schools but lack the strict admissions requirements. Make the programs attractive enough and be proactive about integrating by socioeconomic status and DISD could start to erode the stark divisions between Dallas neighborhoods. For example, Solar Prep, a K-8, all-girls STEAM campus opening this fall, will be split evenly between lower income and middle class students.
"I don't think that districts can wait for neighborhood integration," Koprowski told trustees.
Trustees responded by engaging in a lengthy debate about race and class that was frank without being contentious. Bernadette Nutall, who represents South Dallas, was most skeptical of Koprowski's call to integration, which she referred to as "25 minutes of soundbites." Citing her own experience going through desegregation in DISD, she said that choice schools, no matter how thoroughly integrated, won't get decent jobs for parents stuck cleaning rooms at the Omni for $8 an hour, nor will they do anything immediately to ease the racial tensions laid bare post-Ferguson. "This is not going to fix it by putting a Latino child with a black child with a white child," she said. Similarly, trustee Joyce Foreman, who represents Southwest Dallas, expressed a preference for working with DISD as it is, not as it should be: "This is a majority-minority city. Period."
But even Nutall perked up when the discussion shifted briefly into a critique of the city of Dallas' long history of concentrating affordable housing in poor neighborhoods, and Foreman went on to express support for expanded choice schools, heaping praise upon D.A. Hulcy STEAM, which Koprowski's team opened in her district last August. By the end of the discussion, there was something close to unanimity among trustees that they need to push back strongly against segregation. "Getting rid of that ZIP code destiny is what the data clearly supports," said trustee Edwin Flores.
There's admittedly a lot of distance between politicians speaking fondly of integration and taking concrete action to make it happen. Koprowski's efforts and the city of Dallas-DISD education task force notwithstanding, trustees have still done more of the former than the latter. Still, the fact that the debate is happening is important in and of itself, since these are the discussions that are going to shape Dallas for decades to come.
Not that you'd know any of this from reading The Dallas Morning News. The takeaway from the paper's coverage of Thursday's briefing is summed up in its headline: "Some Dallas ISD trustees critical of bond priority list." It was about trustees squabbling over how the $1.6 billion bond package recently passed by voters will be divvied up. (Update: The Morning News published a news story and an editorial on Tuesday.)
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The Morning News was frequently bashed for its scandal-driven coverage of Superintendent Mike Miles, but those critiques rang somewhat hollow because Miles' ham-fisted management of personnel and ill-conceived clashes with trustees were often quite scandalous.
But Miles is gone now, and there hasn't been anything that remotely resembles a scandal in months. Yet the paper remains curiously resistant to examining, in a serious and nuanced way, DISD's efforts to create a successful urban school system.
How the district spends its bond money is important, since it reflects the district's priorities and reminds everyone of DISD's political fault lines. So is the saga of South Oak Cliff High School. In a surprising display of grassroots political clout, students there walked out of class in December to protest the sorry condition of their campus, ultimately pressuring the DISD administration to substantially increase funding for schools. But why blow at the dying embers of the bond debate, which is all the discussion of the subject at Thursday's briefing amounted to, to the exclusion of a potentially city-shaping discussion on race and class?
It's a shame. Normal human beings can't sit through seven-hour board briefings. If the Morning News, which has an education beat for that exact reason, doesn't cover something, then that something never reaches outside of a small circle of DISD wonks. There are a lot of smart, dedicated DISD trustees, administrators, teachers and community members trying out new school models, trying to strike a more reasonable balance between testing and childhood, trying to reimagine the very geography of the city, but unless they can be framed as a "he said/she said" controversy, few will ever garner mention in the daily newspaper. Perhaps that will change as the paper shifts up its reporting assignments.