Equity & Diversity

Dallas Schools Released From Court Oversight

By Catherine Gewertz — June 18, 2003 3 min read
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A federal judge has released the Dallas public schools from 32 years of court-ordered desegregation. In doing so, he commended the district for the progress its minority students have made, but warned that it needs to remain vigilant if it is to continue on its path toward equitable education.

The 21 black and Latino plaintiffs who filed the class action in 1970 had hoped to delay the end of court oversight for a few years. But U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders said in his June 5 ruling that such oversight of the Dallas Independent School District was no longer necessary.

“The segregation prohibited by the United States Constitution, the United States Supreme Court, and federal statutes no longer exists in the DISD,” he wrote.

In the 40-page ruling, Judge Sanders praised the district for strong management, dedicated teachers, expanded educational opportunities, and a narrowing academic gap between African-American and Latino students, at the lower end of the achievement scale, and their white classmates.

Despite those gains, he wrote, “there is no room for complacency.”

Judge Sanders warned the nine- member school board that it must adhere to a set of 13 covenants it adopted last November to ensure access to high-quality schooling for disadvantaged students. The plaintiffs can approach him to reopen the case within three years if the district appears to be backsliding, the judge said.

Risk of Losing Ground

Brenda Fields, the chairwoman of the education committee of the Dallas NAACP, said the civil rights group would be doing “some close, close monitoring” of the district in the next few years. Noting that standardized-test scores of black and Latino students still lag behind those of white students, she said she believes the district has not yet closed that gap enough to be freed from the court’s watchful eye.

Some scholars would agree that there is cause for concern. Studies by Harvard University researchers have shown that the country’s schools are growing more racially segregated, in part because of a national trend in which judges are ending lengthy desegregation cases. (“Schools Grew More Segregated in 1990s, Report Says,” Aug. 8, 2001.)

Edward B. Cloutman III, who represented the plaintiffs, said he has faith that Dallas Superintendent Mike Moses and the current school board are committed to maintaining the programs set up under the desegregation case. Such initiatives include magnet schools, early-childhood programs, and 16 “learning centers” that offer specialized instruction designed to accelerate the achievement of lagging students.

“I have concern about whether [the commitment to the programs] will continue in future boards and superintendents,” Mr. Cloutman said. “What happens in the future is anybody’s guess.”

Committed

Mr. Moses, who became district superintendent in 2000, said he welcomes the decision as a way to remove the “psychological cloud” of wrongdoing that a desegregation order implies. But he views it not as a time for celebration, but for a long-term, intense focus on the needs of the district’s students.

“I’d say to the skeptics that our commitments and covenants are a strong and sacred statement about our district and how we intend to operate,” he said. “Obviously, we’ll have to prove that over time.”

Marcos Ronquillo, one of the district’s lawyers in the case, said its leaders are committed to providing equal educational opportunity for all children, despite the challenges presented by a diverse, urban student population. Of Dallas’ 156,000 students, more than 90 percent are members of racial or ethnic minorities. More than 80 percent come from low-income families, and a third are not yet fluent in English.

The case began in 1970, when Sam Tasby, an African-American, sued the district for the right to have his two sons attend a nearby school then restricted to white children.

Joined by other families, the lawsuit led to a desegregation order that phased in busing for about 10,000 of the district’s 180,000 students during the 1970s and early 1980s, Mr. Cloutman said. By the mid-1980s, however, busing was replaced by other remedies, including a network of magnet schools and learning centers.

Such steps have produced impressive results, Judge Sanders said, including striking gains in test scores since 1997 by students at the learning centers and in the numbers of students passing Advanced Placement tests.

The plaintiffs contend, though, that white students still are overrepresented in programs for high-achieving students.

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