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Magnet Mayhem: DISD Trustees Seem Hell-Bent on Gutting the Crown Jewels of the District, and for No Good Reason

The Dallas Independent School District is about to do massive damage to its magnet school and learning center programs. The magnets represent the best of the district's academic efforts. The learning centers are the last remaining legacy of a successful decades-long court battle to cleanse the district of apartheid.  

The administration, a majority of the school board and the district's lawyers are telling parents that the district has no choice. They say a change of policy on the part of the Texas Education Agency has tied their hands: They must gut the magnet and learning center budgets in order to hang on to $70 to $100 million in federal aid in a total budget of $1.15 billion.

The story the district is giving parents and the community is straight-up, flat-out, 100 percent not true.

The district's hands are not tied. In fact, the district's determination not to fight for the magnets and learning centers is a 180-degree policy turnaround from a six-year tradition of fighting for them -- and winning.

A specific exclusion in federal law applies to the Dallas case. It offers protection from the very rule the district is citing as its excuse for gutting the magnets and the learning centers.

For six years since the conclusion of a federal desegregation lawsuit, Dallas has cited this exclusion and has won the protection it needed for its special above-and-beyond programs.

Last week, DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander told me that Jack Elrod, general counsel for the district, had told him that covenants, which were part of Judge Barefoot Sanders June 2003 decision releasing the Dallas school system from a 32-year-long desegregation case and upon which the exclusion was based, had lapsed in 2006.

That simply is not true. School board trustee Carla Ranger has posted on her blog a series of communications from the school district to state officials that cite that the covenants as still in effect. In a February 2, 2009 letter, Steven Korby, executive director of financial services for the district, reminded the TEA, "In June 2003 the district was released from the federal desegregation court order with the Court partly basing its decision on the adoption by the board of the Commitments and Covenants."

Doesn't sound like Korby thought the covenants were no longer in force, did he?

The covenants state clearly that they remain in effect until a "super-majority" of the board votes them out of effect. Here's the language:  

"While this policy [the covenants] is in effect, a vote of seven of the then-sitting members of the Board of Trustees shall be required to modify, alter, amend, repeal or vacate this policy."

That hasn't happened. Elrod is wrong. The covenants are still there. Why is that important? Because the same law that DISD says is tying its hands and forcing it to gut the magnets and learning centers has an exclusion telling districts they don't have to gut their special programs if those programs are part of a plan or agreement connected to a court-ordered desegregation order.

The issue here is simple and makes sense. The federal government gives money called Title I funds to school districts for certain kinds of enhancement and enrichment. The Title I money is administered by the state.

The feds want to make sure the Title I money is spent for enhancement and not just to plug a hole in the budget of some school district that can't keep its books straight. And we could hardly blame them for casting a jaundiced eye on Dallas in that regard, could we?

Therefore the feds require that each district prove it is already funding all schools equally in terms of teacher-student ratios, administration and so on.

If the schools are all equal to begin with, then the feds can see that their money, when it is awarded to a particular school, is extra.

The Dallas learning centers-enriched schools in very poor neighborhoods-tend to receive some Title I money. Most of the magnets do not. But that's not the point.

The magnets and the learning centers, by their very nature, are not equal. They are above equal. They have lower student-teacher ratios and more special instruction. The only way to make them equal with all other schools would be to fire most of the special faculty -- the voice and dance and music theory teachers, the teachers who teach Latin to eight students, the people who make a special school special. That's exactly what the Dallas school board is poised to do at its next board meeting.

Dallas's magnet schools and learning centers grew straight out of the federal deseg lawsuit. They were an important part of the district's strategy for avoiding massive busing.

The African-American plaintiffs in the Tasby case told Judge Sanders, who is now deceased, they didn't want their kids bused to white schools. They were happy with special, enriched programs to pull poor minority kids up to the achievement levels of white kids while allowing the minority kids to stay in their own schools.

The goal of diversity, meanwhile, was to be addressed by the magnets, which were designed to be so good and so special that they would attract kids of all ethnic stripes.

The learning centers are idiosyncratic to Dallas, reflecting the Dallas black community's historical lack of enthusiasm for integration. I wrote about all that in May 2003, just before the conclusion of the Tasby lawsuit.

The magnets are a national phenomenon. Recent research has shown them to be successful both at achieving diversity and improving academic performance. I talked about some of that research on Unfair Park last week.

The research paper I cited concludes, "These patterns may suggest that parents value the emphasis that many magnets have traditionally placed on creating racially diverse school environments." That may be why the Title I statute carves out an exclusion for magnets.

Title I tells districts that if they're running magnets as part of an ongoing effort that grew out of a deseg order, they do not have to chop the magnet school budgets back to a flat level with other schools.

I spoke with Gary Orfield, a professor of education law at UCLA, author, co-founder of the Civil Rights Project and a nationally recognized expert on desegregation, to ask him if he thought the agreements signed by the Dallas school board in 2003 would trigger the exclusion in the federal statutes.

He said maybe. It depends. He doesn't know Dallas's deal. But generally, he said, schools that are part of an ongoing effort spawned by a court order do trigger the exclusion.

"The legal question," he said, "is whether or not the final order of the court requires the district to continue to do this."

In other words, if the school board waited until after its deseg case was concluded and then, from of the goodness of its heart and out of the view of the judge, entered into a bunch of agreements, those would not trigger the exclusion. If, on the other hand, the agreements were part of the deseg case, they do trigger it.

I spoke with Edward Cloutman, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs in Tasby, who told me there is no question that the agreement signed by the Dallas school board in 2003 was part and parcel of the federal court settlement.

"It was a lynchpin in Sanders's opinion," Cloutman said. "It's in the face of the opinion. He refers to it very specifically as one of the reasons he's letting them out of court, so there's a lot of connectivity."

The document Cloutman referred to, signed by the district during its appeal to Sanders for release from the suit, is called "Declaration of Commitments and Covenants Upon Release from Court Supervision."

It commits the district to a specific laundry list of promised actions:

"The Dallas Independent School District shall maintain a program of magnet schools, including Montessori schools. The Dallas Independent School District shall maintain programs for talented and gifted students in all elementary, middle, and high schools ... The Dallas Independent School District shall maintain the South Dallas, West Dallas and East Dallas Learning Centers."

So there you have it -- all the pieces right in a row. Federal law says you don't have to cut special schools to a flat level with other schools if those special schools grew out of a deseg case and represent an ongoing effort to achieve diversity. That's exactly the case of the Dallas magnet schools and learning centers.

And yet, based on an assertion that is flat out not true -- that the 2003 "commitments and covenants" are no longer in effect -- the school district is poised to chop these schools, especially the magnets, to levels that will render them no longer recognizable.

Depending on whom you listen to and which document you read, the faculty at the Booker T. Washington School for the Visual and Performing Arts will lose between 23 and 13.5 teachers next year. Given a staff of 60 teachers, that's a slash of between 22 and 38 percent in the faculty.

Alex W. Spence Academy, a learning center and talented and gifted magnet school, will lose 25 percent of its special teachers. The district won't even say yet what the cuts will be at the Science and Engineering or Talented and Gifted magnet high schools, consistently ranked among the top high schools in the nation. We have to assume those numbers are too brutal for the district to let us see ahead of time, before the day they vote to do it.


Carla Ranger, the school board member who has emerged as the brightest bulb on the tree, spoke to me with concern and anger for an hour on the phone one evening about the obvious dislike of some board members for the learning centers. It's something I saw with my own eyes last year when I attended board meetings dealing with the district's disastrous budgetary mishaps.

Board members Jerome Garza and Edwin Flores in particular were quick to say one way the district could save money would be by cutting the learning centers.

The attitude of individual board members toward the magnet schools is complicated, to put it politely. Sometimes one hears appropriate pride. But one can also hear the morally corrupt notion that the magnets, by their success, somehow injure the rest of the district and even cause it to do less well.

I'm not here to sort that one out. You do it. I'm here to make one point.

There is a clear precedent, legal means and ample opportunity for the district's lawyers and lobbyists to protect the magnet schools and the learning centers.

The "change in the law" cited by the district's lawyers is no change at all. It's an e-mail from a mid-level Texas Education Agency staff member citing what has always been the law, that most magnet school budgets have to be leveled with other schools. But the e-mail makes no mention of the exclusion for the particular class of magnets that are part of ongoing desegregation efforts.

I have attempted to sort this out with the TEA, and I must say the response from them has been odd. At first they acted as if they had never heard of Dallas's covenants and agreements, which in fact they have heard of many times.

Dallas has made the argument to TEA repeatedly over the years that the covenants trigger the exclusion, and TEA has implicitly agreed, by allowing the exclusion.

Ranger told me she smells something going on between Dallas school headquarters and TEA, as if Dallas may actually have asked TEA for the e-mail in order to have an excuse to gut the learning centers. The magnets, in this scenario, would be collateral damage.

I asked TEA that question. I asked if they were trying to give Dallas a result that Dallas wanted. A spokesperson said, "Absolutely not!" with emphasis I can only describe as capital A, capital B.

But if it's not the case that Dallas wants an excuse to gut the magnets, then the game plan for Dallas should be simple. All Dallas has to do is send its lawyers and lobbyists to Austin and Washington and ask for a break. If history is any indication, they'll get it for the asking.

Now it looks as if other people may do that for Dallas, whether Dallas likes it or not. I learned late today that TEA is now in talks with the Department of Education in Washington.

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Spokesperson DeEtta Culbertson told me, "The agency has been in discussions with the U.S. Department of Education this afternoon, and we are exploring additional options with Dallas ISD.

"Because it's ongoing and we haven't done anything definitive yet or made a definitive decision, we don't want to go into what they are, but we are exploring additional options."

We can hope that means one thing. Maybe it means the folks in Austin see themselves getting tricked into the middle of another stupid school board trick in Dallas. Maybe the way they'll get out of it will be by reminding Dallas of the exclusion and thereby saving the magnets.

But why do we have to live this way?

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