In a Fight Pitting Public School Jobs vs. Students, Dallas City Council Takes a Dive

Yesterday the Dallas City Council took kind of a dive on a tough issue about a charter school that wants to expand on a new campus in the racially segregated southern hemisphere of the city. This will prove to be Round 1 in a war for the soul of southern Dallas, a war for the soul of the city.

First council member Casey Thomas moved to deny a zoning permission for a $10 million school to be built in his district by Uplift Education, one of the largest and most successful charter school operators in Texas. But then the council sat back and took a breath on his motion. They voted instead to delay the whole thing two weeks, but this fight will be brutal no matter how hard they try to crab-walk away from it.

Thomas doesn’t want a brand-new $10 million school in his district operated by an outfit with a stellar record for sending poor kids to college. Why?

Before the meeting I had a little chat out in the foyer with Dallas school board member Joyce Foreman, who represents the part of town — far southern Dallas near the intersection of Interstate 35 and I-20 — where Uplift wants to build the school. It’s the same area Thomas represents on the City Council.

Foreman wanted the council to kill the zoning for Uplift because she wants it to ban all new charter schools, period, from her district. She claims her district is already “over-saturated” with charters and they are siphoning enrollment away from public schools.

My thinking was that they can’t siphon enrollment from the public schools for long if the public schools in the area are good and the new charters are bad. I asked Foreman about that: Why not be against bad charters and for good ones?

“Some of them are bad,” I said. “Some of them are good. This is a good one.”

“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s a charter school. I have a proliferation of charter schools. I’m not going to say, ‘Oh, you’re the bad one, so you can’t come in.’ But, ‘Oh, this other one, you’re good, so you can come in.’”

Why wouldn’t you say that? “Why isn’t there a difference between good and bad?” I asked Foreman.

“There isn’t,” she said. “They’re charter.”

So this is not about good schools versus bad schools. I guess we settled that. It’s not about teaching kids to read, getting kids to college. This is about an older institutional framework, which we call public schools, versus a newer institutional framework, called charter schools, and Foreman considers the newer one a threat to the institutional well-being of the older one. And that’s what counts — the institutions, not the kids.

During the council meeting an especially painful moment occurred — I would have to call it a truly grotesque moment — when Foreman and allies came to the microphone to speak to the council. First of all, you’ve got to picture the council chamber, a room that rises three stories above the dais where the council sits. It seats 250 people and was packed wall to wall with kids from Uplift Pinnacle, a kindergarten through fifth-grade charter school in Oak Cliff that wants to move to new larger quarters farther south.

I looked for a white kid in that crowd. I’m sure there were some. But I spied none. All of the children I saw appeared to be black and Hispanic.

So one of the speakers against the zoning for the new school was a guy I have known a little bit for decades, the Reverend Holsey O. Hickman, who is an associate minister at Mount Olivet Missionary Baptist Church and a board member of the Dallas Peace Center. Hickman has always been sort of my kind of guy, an old liberal. He wanted the council to vote no on Uplift’s zoning application. Fair enough.

But when Hickman went to the mike, he uttered something that was not only an appalling distortion of history and truth but a terrible, terrible thing to say in front of all those scrubbed and eager children. He called their school, where they are studying hard and hoping for success, a monument to apartheid. He used that word.

“I want to call on this council to vote no,” he said. “And in voting no, you will be voting against re-establishing an apartheid schooling system in this city. I will say that again. In voting no, you will be voting against the re-establishment of an apartheid schooling system in this city.”

I tried to see the faces of the kids just ahead of me. They looked as if they may have been fifth-graders. I couldn’t tell if any of that registered on them. I think they were just shocked to hear adults saying anything bad about their school. When some Pinnacle kids got a chance to speak, they called their school, “a second family.”

The point is that public schools in Dallas, whether they are state-supported school district schools or state-supported charter schools, are all segregated and have been for a half century or more because of white flight. To blame the charters for racial segregation is deeply dishonest and fiendishly manipulative. It's a way of spitting on the efforts of all of the Americans, black, Hispanic and white, who have fought so long for integration.   

But there we have it. Foreman wants all charter schools banished, good or bad. And Hickman is willing to hijack the language of racial atrocity and bend it into an absurd distortion of reality to help her do it.

Thomas, the District 3 council member who wanted the application killed, described himself, of course, as speaking for his community. Maybe. All I know is that he was elected with a mailbag full of thousand-dollar checks from rich white guys downtown, most of them members of the Dallas Citizens Council (see his campaign finance report below).

So, wait. Does that mean the rich white guys are against Uplift? No, the kind of guys who bankrolled Thomas don’t give a shit one way or the other about Uplift or anything else going on in southern Dallas. They just need Thomas’ vote on their own real estate deals.

But Uplift does have the support of some rich white guys. They happen to be a different set of rich white guys who care deeply about education reform. They don’t show up at these things because … rich white guys.

The person who speaks for somebody in this, who means what she says and knows what she means, is Foreman. Joyce Foreman is a smart passionate person who represents the old apartheid black leadership. They are heavily employed by the public school system. They regard that employment as the fruit of their own civil rights struggle, and they regard any intrusion on, interference or competition with that institutional framework as racist, because it messes with their race.

Who did we forget here? Oh, the kids! What if the new institutional framework does compete with and may even threaten the old one, but the new one sends the kids to college while the old one sends them to prison?

That’s the debate and the battle we need to have right now in this town, and this issue is as good a fulcrum as any. Uplift needs to get its parents out into the churches, into the community, to tell its story. And don’t worry about Foreman. She’ll be there ahead of them.

Let’s have this out. Let’s put our cards on the table, right next to our knives. Let’s talk about what this is really all about. It will be worth it for me if I can just see who lines up with which team.

Casey Thomas Campaign Finance Report by Jim Schutze