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Segregation Forever

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The Dallas deseg suit started out as a straight-up integration fight. Sam Tasby, an African-American construction worker and cab driver, sued the Dallas school system in 1970 to force it to let his black sons attend a nearby white school. In response to Tasby, busing began in Dallas in 1971.

But today the idea at the core of the Dallas lawsuit--the issue debated in court this spring--has evolved into a complicated doctrine of educational reparations. In order to get out of court, the school system has doubled efforts and spending to educate poor black kids. The thesis is that the way to compensate the bad effects of segregation is not to integrate but to educate. But that part--extra education to make up for segregation--was an add-on, a fillip tacked on to the deal to make separatism legal.

Kathlyn Gilliam was a leader in the Black Coalition to Maximize Education (BCME), which went to court in the early 1980s to ask for an end to busing. Under its "Minority Neighborhood Option Plan," BCME asked simply that black students be allowed to opt out of busing and return to all-black schools. The BCME made no mention at first of compensatory measures, only of the fact that many black parents and students, having given integration a try, no longer wished to be involved with white schools or white people.

But BCME didn't wind up taking this notion to court. The white-majority school board and its lawyers, who had been battling court-ordered busing tooth and nail for decades, seized on the BCME's plan for an end to busing as if it were the blessed, long-sought, God-given Holy Grail. In a very helpful mood all of a sudden--they "recognized the wedge," as Cloutman puts it--the school district agreed to present the BCME's plan to Judge Sanders.

Sanders chided the district that this brilliant idea--an official policy allowing black kids to return to all-black schools--suffered from being illegal in the post-Jim Crow era. "The theory and practicalities of the DISD neighborhood option plan collide with the command of the law to achieve maximum school desegregation," he said.

But the BCME idea could be tinkered with. It was only re-segregation if it was left in its raw form, as a policy allowing black kids to get off the bus and go back to their neighborhood schools just because they and their parents didn't like white people. With the very enthusiastic help of the school board's lawyers, the BCME refined the idea to include compensatory measures--special "learning centers" where the poorest black children, kids from the projects, would receive teaching and nurturing so enriched, so finely tuned to their particular needs, that it would eliminate the "learning gap" between white and nonwhite students.

Sanders signaled early on that he was now interested, and in 1981 he handed down his first desegregation order, based solidly on the BCME concept of a voluntary abandonment of busing by black families and the creation of special "learning centers" to remediate the educational effects of segregation on poor black children.

The learning center initiative struggled to find curricula that worked. In 1994, Sanders ruled that he was ready to release the district from the suit and call an end to the game, provided the district could show a pattern of three years' consistent measurable success in the educational remedies called for in his original order.

Then--in case you got hit in the head with a board and are having a memory lapse--the Dallas school system plunged into an incredible six-year episode of total political and administrative entropy--people in berets with shotguns at board meetings, one superintendent off to the pokey for pinching furniture, the next one off the deep end from day one (apparently wanted to swim with his friends).

We never got out of court. At the recent hearing, there was persuasive testimony to the effect that many in top echelons at school district headquarters during those years were not especially aware they were even in court. You can't get out if you don't know you're in.

But now we have enjoyed two and a half years of the tenure as superintendent of former Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses. At the recent hearing, the school district presented reams of test-score data to show a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap under Moses, along with testimony of heavy-hitter outside experts praising the school system's achievements.

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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

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