A big picture isn’t necessarily good because it’s big. What if the picture misses the elephant? How does that help?
During Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings' state of the city address Tuesday, he announced he is launching an initiative he calls Goals for Dallas 2030, fashioned after a 1960s thing called just Goals for Dallas. Dale Petroskey, CEO of the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce, gushed immediately to The Dallas Morning News, calling the plan “vintage Mike Rawlings.”
He said, “It's big picture. It's visionary.”
Sure. But 20/20 big-picture visionary? 20/60 visionary? Serious astigmatism?
The document published in 1966 and commonly attributed to the late Erik Jonsson, who was mayor of Dallas, gets all kinds of credit from the old guard for being 20/20 big-picture visionary. It called for things like big parks and big boulevards downtown. Big.
Correct me here if I am mistaken, but I think we are still working hard on a lot of that bigness. That doesn’t make it bad bigness. Many of the points in Goals For Dallas were nice big things, clean big things, so anyone who’s into nice, clean and big would love them.
But Jonsson, who had a poor record of relations with Dallas' black community, forgot to mention race relations in Goals for Dallas. That was big. That was really big. It just was not nice or clean.
Today, more than a half century after the first Goals for Dallas was put forward, racial segregation and economic inequality arguably are even bigger stumbling blocks than they were then between Dallas and a nice, clean big future.
Last month, Mike Koprowski of Opportunity Dallas gave the City Council persuasive data showing that racial segregation is the No. 1 factor reinforcing the achievement gap between white and nonwhite students in our city. Koprowski’s message echoed recent national research at Stanford University showing that minority kids who live in highly concentrated poverty zones have much less chance of catching up to grade-level standards than minority kids who live in less segregated places.
Diversity isn’t the only factor. Some big urban districts are way ahead of others in the amount of progress their students are able to achieve, and nobody is quite sure why. This week, The New York Times published a story about another wave of research at Stanford focused not so much on achievement levels as on rates of progress that students in school districts around the nation are able to achieve.
Guess who came out on top of that one. It was our president’s favorite whipping boy, Chicago. Chicago public schools have a rate of improvement in student achievement in the first five years of education that puts them in the lead nationally.
Dallas, by the way, gets a lousy grade in the same ranking. Of 20 school districts in our region, Dallas ranks 16th in the amount of progress kids make in their first five years. Kids in Chicago achieve six years of grade-level improvement in their first five years in school. Students in Dallas achieve 4.7 years of improvement in the same five years.
That shouldn’t be depressing news. The news about Chicago means that all of the depressing color- and class-bound determinism with which people tend to view education is often wrong. By some set of factors and with certain kinds of effort, poor minority kids can be enabled to catch up with more affluent white kids.
Rawlings has not been blind or indifferent to this city’s daunting challenge of racial and economic inequity. Unfortunately, his approach to resolving it, mainly through an economic development program called GrowSouth, has achieved underwhelming results. Anyway, resolving segregation and inequity by trying to ship money south is the time-honored and easy way out of the problem, neatly stepping around the more direct and obvious approach: racial desegregation.
The last time the mayor and City Council of Dallas had a specific, concrete opportunity to reduce racial segregation in the city was in October of last year when they voted on a measure that would have banned housing discrimination against people who pay their rent with public housing vouchers. The mayor and a slim majority of the council voted against banning discrimination.
The mayor hid behind a new state law pushed through the Legislature by tea party wingdings forbidding cities in Texas from forbidding discrimination. The leadership position would have been to defy that stupid, ugly state law, create an ordinance declaring that Dallas fully intends to reduce segregation and let the courts hash it out from there.
Instead, by putting ourselves in the same basket with the wingdings, we put down a marker, an indicator of the kind of city this is. We have to hope that moves like that one, combined with our numbers on disparity and segregation, won’t become self-fulfilling prophecies.
So that brings us back to big pictures and goals for Dallas. There is every reason why a big-picture effort like the one Rawlings proposes could be wonderful for the city, as long as we don’t leave the elephant out of the picture again. If it’s a tough, frank, candid big picture, a picture that looks squarely at our real challenges, including housing segregation, then it might serve as a powerful road map.
Part of me is inclined to wonder whether the city’s business leadership is the party best equipped to come up with a hard-edged, truth-telling version of Goals for Dallas. Generally speaking, business leaders shy away from hard edges.
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But a younger element in the city’s business leadership has been courageous and aggressive in seeking meaningful school reform in recent years. Koprowski’s work, cited above, is supported in part by that element.
There is no one reason, then, why the mayor’s plan for a new set of goals couldn’t come out well and be productive for the city. It’s just that there are a ton of reasons why Goals for Dallas 2030 probably won’t amount to a hill of beans. They’re the same reasons the original one didn’t produce too many actual beans, either.
This stuff tends to be a bunch of talk. The timing of the mayor’s proposal raises the question of whether it’s really only a campaign vehicle for his successor, anyway.
We’ll be able to figure that one out soon enough. As soon as we get our first peek at this picture, we all know what to ask, right? “HEY! WHERE’S THE ELEPHANT?”