Here’s one solution to the ongoing mess in the DISD: Blow it up. From the looks of it. Dallas doesn’t have much to lose. But it could have a lot to gain. Consider our top 10 list of public high schools. Except for Highland Park, J.J. Pearce, and Piano Senior High, none of our top schools would have ranked anywhere near their present level of excellence 15 or 20 years ago. The suburbs that support them-places like Lewisville and Southlake and Grapevine-were tiny, backwater towns until 1976. In that year, federal judge William Taylor entered the busing plan that effectively destroyed the Dallas public schools. What we’ve been going through for the last two decades are the death throes.
When confronted with the end of their neighborhood schools, thousands of parents-the ones who could afford to- made their choice. They moved to the tiny towns that quickly mushroomed into burgeoning suburbs. One hundred and ten thousand white children left the DISD over the next 10 years, and in the following decade, the African-American and Hispanic middle-classes made their choices, too. Today, with busing ended, only pockets of the middle-class remain in the DISD. The rest have fled. Newcomers to the area make the same choice every day, which is why Piano is one of the fastest-growing cities in America.
Of course, the rich have always had choice, which is why Dallas has so many fine private schools. The multi-racial middle-class has now made its choice. Why shouldn’t poor parents have the same right to choice as the rich and the middle-class?
There are presently 158,000 students in the DISD. Take its budget of roughly $1 billion and divide it among all its students, and that results in $6,330 per student. Take $2,275 per student for administrative costs and special grants, and that means we could deliver every student in the DISD a $4,055 voucher to pay for school tuition. That’s more dollars per student than is spent by five out of our 10 best public high schools. Think of the charter schools, private academies, and church-based schools that would spring up to meet the demand.
But what about the remedial students, the severely retarded, the learning disabled, and the troublemakers-all those kids the DISD Is forced to take under the law? It may lake them, but there’s little evidence that DISD does very much to help them. Contrast that to our survey last year of 15 special-needs schools in Dallas-Fort Worth. These private schools sprang up to service a demand, and once again (he demand came from the middle-class. At a tuition of between $7,500 and $10,000 a student, there is a school equipped to deal with any problem. Using the special grant funds from the abolished DISD budget, the vouchers could be supplemented to make sure every need is met.
What about children who fall through the cracks? None need to. The law remains in place: Every child must go to school. An administrative budget of $90 million or so ought to be enough to make sure that every one of them does. Selling off DISD property could produce billions more for loans and grants to make sure the schools are there for them to go to. The only change is, parents would make the choice.
What If parents make bad choices? Parents make bad choices every day, and God knows, there are plenty of bad parents, rich and poor, who don’t have the slightest idea of how to make any choice at all. Utopia doesn’t exist. But fairness does. And it’s time that good parents who happen to be poor be given fair treatment. That means the same opportunity as parents, good and bad, who happen to be rich.