Obscured by Tornado News, an Important Story at Dallas Public Schools

Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts is a  stunning success. The CitySquare concept for a feeder school was a way to share that success more broadly among poor and minority students.
Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing Arts is a stunning success. The CitySquare concept for a feeder school was a way to share that success more broadly among poor and minority students. courtesy Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts
Something important in local education has happened over the last few days, a story that has already slipped beneath the wave of tornado news. It is worth noting as both a harbinger of progress and a very depressing reminder why progress comes hard.

Dallas school Superintendent Michael Hinojosa has announced he is abandoning an effort to create a performing arts feeder school in South Dallas in partnership with CitySquare, a respected nonprofit advocacy foundation. That’s sad news on its face.

But worse, in dropping the ball on this one project, Hinojosa bows to a larger opposition to creative reform across the district. The opposition is to expanded partnerships with entities outside the school district. It is based mainly on narrow notions of political control and also on agitation by the teachers unions. But before diving into those particular weeds, we need to back off and look at a glaring, overarching reality.

As presently constituted, public education is a powerful enforcer of racial inequality, perhaps second only to the criminal justice system. The truth is in the outcomes.

Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy recently completed a study looking at the way race and educational attainment combine to affect lifetime earnings. The study, called “The Unequal Race for Good Jobs,” found that fewer black and Latino Americans than white Americans get good jobs in the first place, ostensibly because fewer minorities achieve bachelor’s degrees or better.

But that’s only half the story. Even when minorities earn degrees equal to those of whites and even when they get good jobs, they still get paid less in those jobs than white people. The study found that white Americans with good jobs earn $554 billion more a year than they would earn if pay for good jobs were distributed evenly among ethnic groups. Black Americans earn $202 billion less a year than they would if things were equal, and Hispanics earn $352 billion less.

“I think we have to think systemically in how to create equitable opportunities for students of color." — Wil Del Pilar

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If that seems like a lot of unfairness heaped on top of a lot of unfairness, it is. You could almost argue that educational achievement doesn’t work as a tool for equality. But that’s not what the study found and not what the experts say.

Education may not work perfectly. Educational attainment by minorities does not wipe out white prejudice against them, but it’s still the most effective way for minorities to step around that prejudice.

Wil Del Pilar, vice president for higher education at the Education Trust, a Washington-based civil rights organization, said in response to the report: “I think we have to think systemically in how to create equitable opportunities for students of color. We need to close gaps."

Del Pilar called for an expansion of early childhood education, hiring teachers of color and guidance counselors, and providing "wraparound supports" like health service.

That’s exactly the kind of thing that was being proposed as a partnership between DISD and CitySquare. CitySquare, owner of the old Forest Theater at MLK Jr. Boulevard and Interstate 45, wanted to help the school district create a new special enrollment middle school to feed students into Booker T. Washington, the district’s famously successful arts magnet high school.

For many years Booker T. has been both a source of enormous pride for the city and a nagging heartbreak. Its success has been in recruiting budding artists and steering them into fulfilling careers.

The heartbreak is that the school’s success has made it a target for affluent suburban scamsters. As exposed earlier this year in an investigative series by Keri Mitchell at Dallas Advocate Magazine, clever, determined suburban parents have been shoehorning their own kids into Booker T. through the backdoor, depriving Dallas kids of places in their own school.

That’s only half the heartbreak. The other is that even without the scammers, the playing field is not level. Talent is not everything in performance. Many of the performing and visual arts are more welcoming to kids who start their training well before the first year of high school, creating an implicit but important bias in favor of students from the middle class or above.

The CitySquare concept — a performing arts school designed to serve minority and historically underserved kids — is exactly the kind of aggressive intentional measure Del Pilar talks about, a way to reach into poor communities, find special kids and do everything conceivable to boost them up through that forbidding heap of unfairness that awaits them.

So what happened? Why did the school district’s administration take a walk? They don’t care about poor and minority kids? Hardly. No, it’s none of that. In fact, the idea itself came from the administration. They were the ones fighting for it.

The administration can’t say this publicly, but if we want to find villains we must lift our eyes higher. According to what I have been able to glean from sources who asked not to be named for fear of political reprisal, backed up by what’s publicly available on social media, Hinojosa only pulled the CitySquare deal after counting noses on the school board.

Sad but true apparently, our elected representatives on the school board are whom we can thank for this costly missed opportunity. In order to get the arts feeder school funded by the state, the school district needed to change its rules in a way that would have allowed new types of outside partnerships more broadly throughout the district. With the exception of small rump caucus, maybe three of the nine members at most, our school board is still terrified of all partnerships with outside entities, even those that would garner generous new state funding.

click to enlarge Left to right, state Sen. Royce West, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner (and former DISD trustee) Mike Morath, at an event celebrating the successes achieved by the Dallas public school system - JIM SCHUTZE
Left to right, state Sen. Royce West, Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas Education Commissioner (and former DISD trustee) Mike Morath, at an event celebrating the successes achieved by the Dallas public school system
Jim Schutze
Current board member Joyce Foreman and former member Audrey Pinkerton went to social media this week with the party line on why all partnerships are bad, labeling them as “privatization.” Privatization as a meme expresses a conspiratorial theory that conservative interests are plotting to destroy public education from within by helping it.

Sad but true apparently, it is our elected representatives on the school board whom we can thank for this costly missed opportunity.

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And on the far-right fringe of the political ecosphere, some people probably do want to do just that. But we have to go back to that report on outcomes. No matter what sort of malevolent gnomes may lurk in the shrubbery, the fact remains that what we have right now not only does not work, but the consistent entrenched failures of public education serve actively to maintain and perpetuate social and economic injustice.

So something big needs to happen. Things have got to change. Meanwhile, the idea of outside partnerships is not new. As it has for decades, DISD now partners with 77 major corporations offering schools everything from financial help to mentoring. In fact, nobody ever got the heebie-jeebies about partnerships at all until a couple of legislative sessions ago when the state began offering financial incentives to districts that partnered with charter schools.

Ah, charter schools, now we see the devil in these details. Charter schools — the really good ones, not the lousy ones — are the hated foes of two types of people in this picture. They are hated by the teacher’s unions, because they siphon away state funding into small autonomous public charter schools where union organizing is much harder to achieve.

We can kind of get that one, right? The unions think they are doing the right thing for teachers. They don’t want to see a development that they fear would reduce their membership, drain their coffers and weaken their hand.

The entrenched opposition of people like Foreman is a thornier problem. Foreman is smart and committed, with a record of public service as long as her arm and a record of spotless integrity to go with it. She is nowhere near as old as I am, but she is of my general vintage, meaning older.

Her consistent view as expressed in votes and speeches has been that social justice and economic power are to be found in community self-determination. She sees the existing structure of public education as a bastion of that principle.

But these are changed times. Not changed enough, not changed all the way to be sure, but changed nonetheless and changed significantly. Especially in the generations under 50 years of age or so, people from very different walks of life now understand the value of social justice in ways that were beyond the comprehension of many older people (especially the white ones).

From that awareness comes a more blunt and realistic assessment of the current system of public education. Measured against the outcomes, it’s an enormous underperforming investment.

But, wait. In recent years, the Dallas public school system has been achieving stunning outcomes, successes people should be coming here from all over the country to study. All of these success stories have come from the innovative thinking associated with new awareness by new generations of people.

Outside partnerships and, yes, lo and behold, even partnerships with really good charter schools would be entirely consonant with this new way of thinking about public schools. The CitySquare concept of a feeder school for the performing arts, focusing on poor and minority kids, is the perfect example.

There is this to think about: The failures of public education are all associated with the status quo. The successes all are associated with innovation.

There are legitimate historical reasons Foreman and the unions believe that partnerships are the camel’s nose of privatization under the tent, a cynical conspiracy to undermine and destroy public education. But, look, there are legitimate historical reasons I still think I should be able to adjust my car’s carburetor with a screwdriver.

The very sad thing is that the arts feeder school for now is a victim of this controversy. The wonderful and exciting thing is that somebody thought of it in the first place and that it can be resurrected with the snap of a finger and a little more courage from the school board.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze