Malcolm Muggeridge says we are affected by “cosmic irony” and points to our schools for an example: The more we spend on public education, the less education our children seem to receive. A case in point: The Dallas public schools’ total spending has increased 250 percent in 10 years (while the number of students has declined 14 percent), yet more and more kids are graduating from high school without the ability to read and write. At that rate, Muggeridge says, we’ll soon come to the point where “the State is spending every penny of its resources on public education, with the inevitable result that the entire population will be illiterate.”
On a less cosmic plane, this magazine has been interested in a practical question: Where is all that tax money going? Recently, we have directed our attention to a small piece of the puzzle, something called the Foundation for Quality Education Inc. Created by the DISD in 1977 as a way of raising money for projects that cannot legally be funded by tax money, the foundation was placed under the leadership of businessman James Bond, with a docile but prestigious board of directors in nominal authority.
Even though the school board generously allocated $25,000 in “seed money” to the foundation, it got off to a less than spectacular start. Late in 1977 it went back to the school board for more money. Last summer, in looking over the proposed school budget, we noticed that more than $115,000 had been allocated to the foundation for the current year.
Since the organization was founded and maintained with tax money, we decided to have a look. After meeting with Bond on several occasions and getting nowhere, reporter Len Reed filed an official request last August to review the financial records of the foundation. Bond refused, arguing that a review would hurt the foundation by revealing the names of its private contributors. (Up to that point, with two exceptions, we didn’t know there had been any contributors other than the taxpayers.) We replied that if he wanted to keep contributors’ names secret it wouldn’t bother us. We weren’t concerned with how private money was being raised, but with how public money had been spent.
In September Bond promised to deliver the information to us in the form of an “audit.” Instead, we received a four-page “status report” that promoted the foundation’s potential and said that it could earn the school district “several million dollars” (all caps and underlined, lest we miss it). In other words, Bond never delivered. In October – while engaged in legal debates with us, his lawyers, and the Texas Attorney General’s office – Bond suddenly announced the revival of a grandiose plan whereby the foundation would construct an educational, administrative, and hotel complex on DISD property downtown.
We stayed on the track, although Bond wouldn’t budge on opening the books of his foundation. 1 won’t take you through the labyrinthine legal steps we followed in trying to find out how the foundation had spent your tax dollars. But as this issue goes to press we are still pursuing the matter – now with the District Attorney’s office, under a Texas statute that requires non-profit corporations to keep their financial records open to the public during normal business hours. At the same time, Bond is promising the school board to have his “audit” and annual report before them by the middle of March. If he produces them, you may read reports of the foundation’s financial condition in the newspapers before you read this.
Meanwhile, the foundation’s financial practices promise to become even more interesting. For example, we report elsewhere in this issue that former Supt. Nolan Estes has been retained by Ross Perot’s EDS to work on the production of instructional materials in conjunction with the foundation. Employees of the school district were assigned by Estes to the foundation to work on this same project. Now Estes has resigned from the foundation’s board to “avoid any conflict of interest.” Now that EDS is in the picture, that list of the foundation’s private contributors might be good reading after all.
You and I, meanwhile, still don’t know what happened to our tax money, and the foundation was two years old last month. We’ll keep on trying to find out.
Encountering some remarkable men.
For someone on the verge of cynicism, the University of Dallas is a marvelous and timely antidote. Early in March they invited their six previous McDermott professors – Jacques Barzun, Mortimer Adler, Malcolm Muggeridge, Marshall McLuhan, Christian Norberg-Schulz, and Hans-Georg Gadamer – back to campus for a weekend colloquium on liberal education. It came off splendidly; I was impressed more at times with the quality of the rejoinders from the faculty than by the remarks of the visitors. (I especially want to mention Michael Platt of the English department, who delivered a brilliant addendum to Professor Gadamer’s lecture).
The point is that these are “professors” in the truest sense: They do profess something. To them, liberal education isn’t some weak-kneed spinster sister who is dragged out into the parlor whenever a big donor happens to ask about her, but the very breath and soul of a university. It’s in danger, they admit. To some (such as Muggeridge, whom I’ve already quoted), it’s beyond recovery. To others, such as Barzun, it shows signs of life.
Barzun made a point that struck home with me. Liberal education in the modern age is practical and it is necessary. Whenever a journalism student visits my office to inquire about a future job or to ask for general advice, my first words to him or her are to get out of journalism school. Good journalism today demands people with more scope and depth than the ability to write pyramid style news stories, just as accounting firms require more than a graduate that knows how to read a balance sheet. The difference is between training and education. I’ll take education; we can do the training ourselves.
These things occur to me now becausethe University of Dallas allowed me to encounter some remarkable men for aweekend. It makes me reflect on what agreat treasure we have in that little place,and how glad I am we have it.