IS WHITE FLIGHT RUINING THE DALLAS SCHOOLS?

Thousands of Parents are walking out on the DISD. Can the trend be stopped? Not if school officials mislead the public by pretending. the problem doesn’t exist.

In 1970 the Mecklenburg County School District, whose center is the North Carolina city of Charlotte, filled up its first busload of public school students to be taken out of their home school districts, as mandated by court order. The public reaction was swift. Riots erupted in the streets. Police were (and still are) assigned inside the high schools. The protest was so intense that several policemen said it was worse than the years they spent as soldiers in Viet Nam. Charlotte rocked through three years of rioting, until finally no one cared anymore.

Last fall schools were forced to close in Boston when rock and bottle throwing, in protest to forced busing, made it impossible to conduct classes. Similar incidents threw Louisville schools into chaos. It took months in many cities for the highly charged issue to cool enough that schools could go on with the changes.

Last fall, five years after the initial desegregation order had been handed down in Dallas, the Dallas Independent School District implemented its busing plan for grades four through eight. There were no riots. There were no rocks or bottles thrown. No one was killed in street fighting. Instead, there was a massive public relations blitz. Through posters, notes sent home with students, phone calls, a large degree of support by the business com-munity and, primarily, a flood of material to all media, the DISD not only soothed the public but seemed to convince them that everything would be all right. Magnet schools, Vanguards, Academies, and special programs were introduced so furiously that everyone apparently forgot what the reason for this burst of change was. Even Dr. Paul Geisel, instrumental in designing the desegregation plan as executive director of the Dallas Alliance, was quoted as saying, “It’s amazing – we’ve talked about 70 percent of the people of Dallas into this kooky thing. They actually think the schools are decent and, for an urban school district, hot damn.”

The Dallas plan has been trumpeted nationwide as a guide for other school districts and hailed as a landmark success. The fact is, not even the media blitz was a success. In a recent survey of public opinion of the schools, Louis, Bowles, and Grove, Inc. reported a 44 percent favorable rating of the DISD overall, with a matching 44 percent unfavorable. In the same survey, a plurality of people named busing, integration, and racial conflicts as the number one problem facing the DISD.

With public opinion divided, why has Dallas’ implementation of busing been regarded as such a success?

One major reason is that Dallas looks good by comparison. No violence or overt resistance marred the city’s remarkable history of peaceful racial relations. Business leaders such as Donald Stone of Sanger Harris, Jack Lowe of Texas Distributors, and Walt Humann of the Dallas Alliance worked long and hard to make sure Dallas would obey the law, and their vigorous efforts spread calm over troubled waters. Dallas may have not been ready for busing, but it wasn’t ready to abandon its middle class tradition of abiding by the law, either.

But another – and less heroic – reason why Dallas’ implementation appears to have gone smoothly is that Dallas school officials have consciously avoided releasing figures which show how badly Dallas has been affected by the busing order. The facts, gathered from district reports but never released by the school district, show that “white flight” has hit Dallas hard and is increasing at an alarming rate.

The facts are contained in district enrollment figures. Superintendent Nolan Estes made a half-hearted effort in October, 1976, to release post-busing enrollment figures to the public. The figures, under examination, proved to be so confusing and self-contradictory that the superintendent ordered them withdrawn and announced that there would be a delay in releasing accurate figures. Those promised figures have never been forthcoming. (D Magazine’s figures are taken from DISD reports to Federal Judge William Taylor. They have not been previously published.)

Estes’ reluctance from a public relations standpoint is understandable. These numbers show a catastrophic pattern of white flight from the public schools and from the city itself. Statistics for the northwest sub-district show a decrease in anglo enrollment in grades 4-6 of 36.89 percent from the 1975-76 school year to the 1976-77, the first year of busing under the plan. In grades 7-8, the rate was 20.96 percent. That’s 1,909 students lost in only one year in only one sub-district. Anglos have become a minority within the past three years, now at 38.11 percent district-wide – while blacks are a plurality of 47.03 percent. District records from 1970 (the year before the court order) through 1977 reflect the fear and confusion of parents. Despite an increase of 9,760 blacks and 5,501 Mexican-Americans, there was a net drop in the student count of 25,646. All told, that means 41,375 whites have left Dallas public schools in the past seven years. The largest percentage of whites now is in the high schools, so within the next few years the anglo percentage will drop to about 30 as the white bloc graduates, if the pattern continues. The table below is the exact anglo enrollment count, grades 4-8, from the year before busing (1975-76) and the year it started, for the northwest sub-district, as reported in the final court order on April 7, 1976 and in the district report to the court April 15,1977.



The mass exodus from the district began in earnest in 1970 when the filing of the original suit created the threat of forced busing. The most ardent anti-busers either moved out immediately or placed their children in private schools. Many of these were the racists, the people who simply would not tolerate the idea of their child sitting next to someone of another color. But as the phenomenon continued, it was apparent that racism was not the only reason for getting out. Claire Woodchek and her family moved to Piano. “I did not want my child bused. We didn’t know what would happen with the court order.” Her son Eric attended David Burnet for the first five weeks of the fourth grade. Mrs. Woodchek saw changes being made in Burnet, preparations for the expected increase in the student count, including the removal of one library despite the increased enrollment. “We could just see all of these things happening. We decided to enroll him in private school. He didn’t want to go and we didn’t want him to go. We got to thinking about private school for three boys. You add that up and that’s a lot of money. We figured it would be cheaper in the long run to move out.” The difference? “Eric did more work in his first week in Piano than in the five weeks at Burnet. I’m not an educator; I’m just a mother concerned about her child, and he’s getting a challenge out here.”

By 1976, the changes alone were enough to perplex many parents. Children were clustered in K-3, 4-6, and 7-8 centers. Schools nearer the perimeter of the district resembled ghost towns as students were transported to the more inner-city schools, in accordance with the plan. (Construction will soon begin for expansion of several inner-city schools in order to alleviate the often stifling overcrowding, even though Estes admits that 421 of the 7,000 classrooms at the grade levels involved now stand empty.) Vanguard schools and the Academies came into being for 4-8 graders. Magnet schools, following along the lines of Skyline Career Development Center, were created to fill the career education gap. The “Partners in Reading” program, aimed at the desperately low literacy rate, utilized a heavy response of parent volunteers.

A widespread attitude of “We don’t like it, but let’s do the best we can with it” has motivated the Dallas business community to back up the district. Approximately 35 companies have “adopted” schools, sending employees in as volunteers to help in any way possible, principally in reading assistance and other kinds of tutoring. Some went further. Henry S. Miller Realtors employees began picking up and delivering children who lived off of established bus routes or couldn’t ride the bus for some other reason. These programs – Estes calls it “unparalleled support” – have helped. But the problems have not evaporated. Many parents feel the problems haven’t even been confronted.

Tommy Roberts is ten years old. He lives across the street from Harry C. Withers Elementary in North Dallas. Before 1976 Withers housed kindergarten through seventh grades. But last year, when Tommy started the fourth grade, he couldn’t walk across the street to school. His mother got him up at 6 a.m., enough time to get him ready to catch his 7:15 bus to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Elementary. His ride was a little over half an hour, short compared to that of many children. Longfellow was designated as a Title I school, a federally-funded program that provides free breakfasts and lunches and school supplies to students whose economic bracket qualifies them. Longfellow, located in a mixed anglo/black neighborhood, qualified. One of the restrictions of the program is that teachers are required to spend a certain amount of time with Title I children, invariably much more than with the others. Tommy’s mother Nancy Roberts says that while the teacher worked with the Title I students, “the others sat at their desks and did busywork. I feel that my son has lost a year.” The Roberts’ house is up for sale. If it isn’t sold by the start of school, Tommy will enroll in a private school. Mrs. Roberts adds, “We’re not looking forward to having to move out, but we weigh these things out. I’ve had it. I’m not going to give any more. They can build all the magnets they want, but as long as they are telling us who can go where, Dallas is going to lose.”

The feeling that children can no longer get a “good education” in Dallas public schools is the reason most often cited by parents who take their children out of the school system, and complaints are still hot under the administrative collar. Nolan Estes reponds to the charge, calling it “a coverup.” He says that he would match the education a child receives in his schools to that available in any and all local private schools. “There’s no way they can begin to touch the quality of our schools,” Estes says. He points to the numerous career education facilities, reading programs, and special schools. He spells them out as part of his goal of “excellence in education,” the reason for the busing order in the first place.

Estes doesn’t question the order itself. It is the law and he must obey it. City councilman John Leedom, who represents the affluent families of the northwest sub-district, is more outspoken. “The ultimate solution is not to have people involuntarily bused. I don’t think there’s a beneficiary to this system. But I do think that everyone involved should be commended for at least putting one together that worked harmoniously.”

Many parents believe that one element of a “good education” is lost with the destruction of the neighborhood school concept. They feel that children are missing a valuable part of their school experience when they cannot be on the pep squad or the football team because it’s too far for them to go during non-school hours for practice. Many black families in particular cannot arrange transportation. Many don’t want to. Carol Spangler worked as a parent-teacher contact with the Ewell D. Walker Middle School PTA when her daughter attended Walker. In the course of calling parents to drum up attendance at PTA meetings, she found a discouraging lack of interest among the parents of the black children bused in from J.W. Ray. “Even when the science fair came, there weren’t

any Ray parents there. If they had children in the fair, they weren’t there. It was just because it was too far.” Even when bus transportation is arranged for parents, there is almost always a dismal turnout. Distance is one reason. Nancy Roberts cites another. “Our whole neighborhood had been active in PTA for a long time. But now a lot of parents just won’t go down there [Longfellow] at night because of the area. One teacher was beaten up on her way to the car. There isn’t the closeness, the pulling together anymore. And that hurts the whole city.”

A city’s lifeline is tied to its schools by multiple threads. Not only is the quality of life in a city mirrored by the quality of its schools, but the calibre of leaders a city produces is dependent on the education they receive. A more down-to-earth connection is purely economic: a mass movement of affluent whites out of the city would have a crushing effect on the city’s tax base. Annual population estimates by the City of Dallas are not broken down by ethnicity, but a Housing and Urban Developement researcher assures, “We are not losing white population in Dallas. There are probably more whites in Dallas now than in 1970. The ratio is changing. I don’t think the city is losing school-age population at the rate the DISD enrollment figures would suggest.” City officials suggest more parents are leaving the district for private schools than for the suburbs.

Still, Dallas is not ready for what could happen. In Charlotte there was an immediate drop in enrollment of 10,000 after the busing order. Detroit’s public schools, with busing in grades kindergarten through 12, lost 59,518 students between 1970 and 1976. Enrollment in Detroit schools is over 80 percent black, expected to reach 90 percent this year.

Is Dallas headed for the same fate? Right now our chances for survival seem much better. “I am convinced that that won’t happen here because of the programs we have set up,” affirms Nolan Estes. “We see a bottoming out of the exodus as our new programs attract people back to the public schools. As a matter of fact, we’re projecting an increase in student enrollment this year for the first time in eight years.” So run Estes’ predictions. Leedom’s expectations are equally optimistic. “There’s enough strength in Dallas and enough fortitude in the school board leadership that I think the school district will gradually pull itself up and develop into a really good school system.”

Nobody disagrees. The district can turn around – if its leadership confronts the facts and lets the public know the damage it has suffered. Nothing is gained by saying the emperor is wearing clothes that don’t exist. The sad problem of white flight from the district is there. It is real. And unless we meet the challenge head-on, it will only accelerate.

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