Thursday, April 23, 2009

Accomplishing the Mission - But at Whose Expense?

The mission to be accomplished by public schools, is to educate every child. In Dallas, as in every other major city, that has take extraordinary effort. The establishment of learning centers in predominantly African-American and poor neighborhoods, was an effort to address racial disparities in completing that mission.

Are they now to be considered an unaffordable luxury?

Apparently, there is some discussion questioning the need for them. Learning Centers were created under the old desegregation order that was done away with when a federal court declared that DISD had declared 'unitary' status in 2003 (50 years after the Supreme Court Decision ordering desegregation with 'all deliberate speed'). Learning Centers have additional resources, smaller class sizes and educational enhancements that other schools don't have - before and after school and extended day programs, as well as community liaisons.

The 'overfunding' of learning centers threaten the district's ability to access President Obama's stimulus allocation for public schools and apparently jeopardizes DISD's Title I funding also.

Of course, there also appears to be more than one side to the story. According to school board trustee Carla Ranger, the district can obtain a waiver to avoid the equitable funding issue. Ms. Ranger says that the Texas Education Agency has awarded these waivers every year since 2003.

There are all sorts of reasons NOT to provide funding for schools to address racial disparities. Especially if you limit the racial disparity question to mere numbers. DISD is 'desegregated' as are most big city public schools because the majority of students are minority. And, at the risk of oversimplification, the rationale that Learning Centers have not produced demonstrable or appreciable improvement in grades and test scores, could be addressed by looking at how the funding 'disparity' is being allocated. Is the district paying more money to more experienced and effective teachers to teach in these schools, for example? What innovative teaching programs and what new technology is being employed to produce the desired results? And is the 'overfunding' being used to address the fact that many of these schools are in areas of concentrated poverty?

Equally problematic is the prospect of exacerbating tensions between black and brown communities, since most of these learning centers are located in predominantly black neighborhoods. By appearing not to do everything he can to preserve this funding, Michael Hinojosa, the superintendent, could be courting more conflict than is worth the $105 million the district would reportedly gain.

School board president, Jack Lowe, as do others, see this as a matter of 'fairness'. It took more than 30 years for DISD to realize that Supreme Court rulings and federal law actually applied to our public schools as well as the rest of the country. Now the district sees the fierce urgency of 'fairness'.

Why not argue for a change in state law? Why not hold up the commitments made by the district when it was released from judicial oversight? Where did the idea come from that laws and policy were so immutable? This is the same school board that risked violating state law in order to extend their terms of office without consulting the state attorney general's office. This same district can't look to change a policy that would so drastically impact schools which they say aren't doing well in spite of extra funding?

There are two things about this that trouble me: one is to have adults who have not fully thought out the consequences of unitary status. Anyone who thought that gains under federal court oversight wouldn't be challenged once that oversight was removed, and had no strategy to address that challenge was living in a fantasy world. Secondly, it disturbs me that a district facing fiscal choices in the wake of last year's $84 million fiasco, would be so irresponsible. Why would anyone even think of facing the choice between schools in poor neighborhoods losing any funding, or the district losing Title I funding and stimulus money? Why on earth isn't anyone pushing to keep every dime we have? Whose job is it to look for, create, lobby for, or beg for whatever exemptions on whatever basis necessary?

We may not like the fact that race and economics play a part in the education of our children, but they do. And we cannot educate the children we would like to have. We've got to educate the ones we have. We need every dime that we can lay our hands on to do accomplish that. The only thing really 'unfair' is not being aggressive in that pursuit.

Unless, of course, we think we've accomplished the mission.

No comments: