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What Toyota Is Really Talking About When It Blames Dallas' Scary, Scary Schools

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You know what the one good thing is about a bad school system? It's a great excuse for everything else.

Mayor Mike Rawlings stirred the pot earlier this week by telling KERA that Dallas lost out on a recent huge corporate relocation, Toyota's American headquarters, because of our bad school system.

Dallas schools spokesman Jon Dahlander fired back that Dallas has high schools consistently ranked best in the nation and is on a path to improvement generally -- a thing about which I have a column in the newspaper this week.

Yeah! Here's the thing. Both things are true. Before Dallas schools superintendent Mike Miles came to town a couple years ago, most people in Dallas didn't know either of those two facts. Miles was taken aback by public apathy over the district's miserable record of preparing children for literate lives.

But neither did people realize the Dallas public school district year after year gets ranked at the top of the nation by Newsweek and other polls for its talented and gifted, math and science and performing arts high schools. Those magnet high schools, which have student bodies representative of the ethnic and economic diversity of the district, are the real proof of the pudding: they show what can be done.

The good news now, after Miles and Rawlings have done their pot stirring for a couple years, is that more people are saying, "OK, we know what must be done, and we know it can be done, so let's do it."

But here is where I can't help feeling for Dahlander. He and I have crossed swords plenty over the years. I know Dahlander has an unusual quality for a PR guy. He actually cares at a deeply personal level what happens to the school district. And he knows what I know and what everybody really knows about that line Toyota gave the mayor on why they were rejecting Dallas and going to Plano instead. It's the one thing you can get away with saying.

I'm not questioning Toyota's honesty here. I think what they said had the ring of truth. I'm just saying that blaming the schools happens to be the one thing, among many that might also ring true, that you can get away with saying.

Here are the ones you cannot say:

We didn't want to locate in Dallas because there are too many poor people there, and our employees don't like being close to that many poor people.

We thought about Dallas, but there seem to be way too many people of color there.

We drove around and looked at kids on the playgrounds during recess, and we could hardly see any white kids.

Our employees don't want to hear Mexican music in the parks.

We feel more comfortable in the shops and restaurants in Plano, because the whole scene is just so much whiter and richer, and when you do run into minorities, they're dressed like rich white people.

So in the items above, am I deliberately suggesting a culture of racism? Umm, let me think here for a second. Yes. I am. Racism and classism are, of course, powerful factors in all of the important decisions that get made, and pretty much the only people who ever deny that are the worst racists. Most of us acknowledge that these factors are a part of normal life.

And by the way, we're not only talking about how white people feel. Middle-class and upwardly mobile black people and Latinos often tend to have some form of the same set of feelings: Given a choice, they would rather not live or raise their kids within 100 miles of a crack house.

There is an important internal question here: Can you tell a black crackhead from a black classics professor? Unsurprisingly, Latinos and black people often are a lot better at that than white people. But let's leave that one for another day. The fact is that lots of people have lots of reasons why they don't want to be in the city, but the only one they can say out loud and not get in trouble is that the schools are bad, so the schools inherit all of it.

It's the universal excuse for everything. I can almost imagine telling my boss, "I'm sorry I missed the story meeting again, but, you know, it's because of these terrible schools in Dallas." He's stopped listening anyway after, "I'm ..." (Ed.: I often don't even make it that far.)

Look at it this way: If all those Toyota people have such brilliant kids, why wouldn't they assume all their kids would attend Dallas' magnet schools, which are among the best in the nation? Of course that's an unfair question, because they don't all have brilliant kids, and that's not the test. People who have sort of average kids are serious about good schools, because those kids need all the help they can get.

Nor do we have any right to demand that people like Toyota refrain from telling us what they perceive to be the truth. We need to hear it. In my column this week, I quote Superintendent Miles as saying that he welcomes any and all pressure to improve the district. He clearly views apathy as a bigger threat than criticism. (By the way, I made a mistake that got into the print edition of the column, making it look as if Miles is a supporter of the Home Rule petition drive. That is not true. He has taken no position on Home Rule. My apologies.)

It's fair, however, to say this. To the extent Toyota took a shot at the biggest public school system in this part of Texas, it was a free shot for them, but it will tend to reinforce decisions by others to abandon the city and its schools. I'm sure that is not what Toyota intended, but that may be the effect. So when they do get to Plano, anything Toyota can do to help the Dallas school system would seem very decent of them.

Sorry to have gone on a little long here. It's because of the schools.

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