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Updated: More on the Arts Magnet’s Troubles

by Jerome Weeks 7 May 2009 10:28 AM

Yesterday, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about how DISD feels it must make significant cuts in the number of employment positions at the city’s vanguard and magnet schools — including 13 positions at the Booker T Washington Arts Magnet alone and even more at the TAG magnet. But relatively little follow-up has happened […]


nancy-hamon-arts-magnet-signYesterday, the Dallas Morning News ran a story about how DISD feels it must make significant cuts in the number of employment positions at the city’s vanguard and magnet schools — including 13 positions at the Booker T Washington Arts Magnet alone and even more at the TAG magnet. But relatively little follow-up has happened — partly because a lot of media attention right now is on the controversy over trustees trying to extend their terms and the factions on the board represented in the current election.

But the PTAs for those schools are frantic and despairing. The reason DISD gives for these cuts is that if the district doesn’t equalize the money spent per-pupil in each school, they will lose $105 million in Title 1 federal funding, which goes toward programs for low-income students. The federal government requires that the schools’ per-pupil budgets be within 10 percent of each other across the district.

This entire setup would seem to be perversely designed to gut specialized programs. The purpose of an Arts Magnet campus like Booker T is to have teachers and facilities beyond the core curriculum to serve students with a talent and a drive in these areas — teachers in the arts equipped with musical instruments, dance studios, ceramic kilns, etc. Needless to say, without such teachers and equipment, there is relatively little reason for parents to send their children to TAG or Booker T.

DISD’s response to this latest lurch into a budget crisis is a classic case of hand-washing: We had nothing to do with it, it’s a federal issue. But there are a number of factors that clearly make this very much a DISD issue.

The Dallas public has the impression that TAG and Booker T are the universally beloved “jewels” of DISD: They’re the schools that often win national honors and produce the academic and artistic stars, they’re some of the precious few successes that DISD can point to. Even so, many people in the school administration and throughout the many neighborhood schools dislike them intensely. The magnet and vanguard schools, by their nature, are not “equitable.” Not just any student can get into them.

What’s more, their programs don’t serve any particular neighborhood; they serve the city at large, which means their parental and alumni constituency is watered down, and they’re much, much smaller in number than the many PTA groups at the local schools. Finally, as I noted yesterday in a comment, the arts add nothing to a school’s TAKS scores. They’re not tested. So the arts don’t help a principal or a superintendent advance his students’ “improvement” scores — and, incidentally, advance his own career. So these programs are worse than burdensome ‘extras.’ You can read one parent’s understandable bitterness over Booker T and the other special programs getting the attention and money while her child’s school doesn’t on Frontburner.

Although the district insists this isn’t about layoffs because the teachers will be re-assigned to other, needier DISD schools, many of the magnet/vanguard/learning center teachers were hired to fill very specific job descriptions. Where will a teacher, certified in high school dance or sculpture or elementary school computer ed, find another position in DISD? And if he or she does find such a job, how effective can the teacher be in a school with no previous dance program, no painting/sculpting studio, insufficient musical instruments, no real computer center? If the plan is to upgrade all the schools who will now be getting these specialized teachers, where will all the facilities and equipment come from — in a district already facing $64 million in budget cuts?

The way the re-assignment formula has come down to the teachers is that each school will get a music teacher and an art teacher. After that, who knows? This seems to mean drama and dance pretty much go out the window all across the district. It’s true that some of these specialized teachers are also certified to teach core subjects for elementary or high school, and so they can move into TAKS-related positions — if they want to, if they absolutely need the salary and benefits (which is more than likely, of course). That means this way — ta-dah — we lose an experienced music teacher but gain an unhappy science teacher in a neighborhood school.

All of this can be seen, not as yet another DISD mess, but as a calculated, backdoor shift in theory, policy and power. Big-city public schools are governed by what has been called the “iron triangle.” What everyone wants from public schools are 1) quality education, 2) equal access to quality education for all families and 3) low taxes. And the fact is you can get only two of those three, never all three. It’s not possible.

Which two you’re going to get depends on a district’s targeted goals and the political forces that shape them. (Actually, what we mostly get is a muddle, a push this way, a pull that way as the forces face off and administrators slip in their own ideals or pragmatism.) Thus, the magnets and vanguards are a classic case of offering quality education — but not equal access. Students have to earn their place in them.

With its improved magnet schools and learning centers, DISD has tried to woo back a middle-class, white populace. But the programs were actually forced on the district by the desegregation order. Now that the order is gone, now that the same political forces aren’t in play, now that the district is facing a budget crisis — we get a wrenching turn toward enforced “equitable access.” And, of course, that has a very big, “zero-sum” racial and social class component: One side’s gain must entail another side’s loss. Equitable access means turning away from focused, high-quality, specialized programs and supposedly toward serving the much larger, poorer Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods — who, honestly, need whatever extra attention they can get (now they may get the double bonus of that Title 1 money and the dribble of under-equipped teachers sent their way).

But this change can also seem like the perfect formula for watering-down some of the district’s most effective programs. And getting what in return, precisely? Scattering some extra teachers around is not exactly a plan for lifting all boats.

UPDATE: Eric Celeste on Frontburner has posted the flyer that his daughter, a student at Booker T, was given. Check it out. It answers a number of the questions posed here (but not all) and offers a number of recommendations for action.

Regardless of where you might stand on these issues, the questions about all this that haven’t been answered are:

1. Once again, how could this latest DISD budget crisis not have been foreseen? Whatever happened in previous years with Title 1 funding — when these specialized programs already existed? The Title 1 money wasn’t in danger then, it seems, so why now? And whose job is it in the administration to track such things, prepare the Title 1 requests? We are talking about 31 positions and $105 million in federal money, and the district didn’t know? It looks an awful lot like something that was allowed to occur — because people in the administration don’t want the magnets to continue.

2. If they honestly do wish the magnets and vanguards will continue, what does DISD seriously think is going to happen to them? Why should they be called vanguards or magnets any more? What will DISD say to the parents of students who’ve already gotten into those schools for next year? They were admitted to specialized programs that, for all intents and purposes, no longer exist.

3. Why isn’t funding for sports factored into this? Are we to believe that athletics receives the same funding per pupil per school throughout DISD?

For much, much more discussion on all of this, you can check out the Dallas Morning News DISD blog or its education news section.