A couple of updates about DISD’s ongoing magnet/learning center/TAG funding saga, which have been discussed here and here at Back Talk during the past couple of weeks. The issue invovolves a federal directive for DISD to equalize funding at all districts (the magnets currently are funded on a higher per-pupil basis than neighborhood schools) or risk losing more than $100 million in federal funding. DISD’s board is expected to vote on the funding issue at its Thursday meeting…

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Tawnell Hobbs with the DMN reports today that the Texas Education Agency has told DISD that magnet schools are exempt from the funding issue; according the TEA, the magnets are exempt because less than 45 percent of students at the schools are on free or reduced-price lunch programs, so Title I money (handed out by the federal government to help local districts pay for disadvantaged students’ education) doesn’t affect the magnets’ funding. Schools exempted, according to the TEA, are Booker T. Washington, Townview, William B. Travis, Harry Stone Montessori, Dealey, Longfellow and the Environmental Science Academy.

The TEA is now telling DISD that learning centers are not exempt and funding must be reduced at those schools, which could result in teacher reassignments and a change in the services provided; the DMN quotes the parent of a student at Sequoyah Learning Center as being worried the school might have to give up its ballet program if funding is taken away.

DISD’s African-American trustees are less interested in the magnets’ funding and more interested in preserving the special funding status for the learning centers, because most of those were established in low-income areas as part of a federal court mandate to integrate DISD 40 years ago. The court order is gone now, but the trustees are arguing DISD is legally required to continue funding the learning centers anyway.

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They’re getting some support from Jim Schutze with the Dallas Observer, who has an interesting and well-researched story concluding that DISD is under no legal obligation to equalize funding among any of the special schools and the "regular" schools.

There are two issues here: One, should the magnets be allowed to keep their disproportionately higher funding, and two, is DISD being forced to cut the funding by the federal government or is all of the legal mumbo-jumbo just a convenient excuse to do what most of the board members and Supt. Michael Hinojosa seem to want to do anyway?

Schutze’s take is that what DISD is considering doing is "gutting" the magnets; based on his research, DISD has no legal obligation to change its allocation formula. To quote from his story: "So there you have it — all the pieces right in a row. Federal law says you don’t have to cut special schools to a flat level with other schools if those special schools grew out of a deseg case and represent an ongoing effort to achieve diversity. That’s exactly the case of the Dallas magnet schools and learning centers."

The real question here is whether the special schools are part of an "ongoing effort to achieve diversity". That was their original mission 40 years ago when the courts took over administration of DISD, but it’s pretty hard to argue that anymore since DISD is about as integrated as a school district can get these days.

Instead, the magnets, TAGs and learning centers are being given additional funding to provide specialized learning environments for small, select groups of students — not all students can attend one of the special schools, even if they’re disadvantaged and even if they want to (there isn’t enough capacity, and at least with the magnets and TAGs, you have to compete with other students to be accepted).

You know, on one hand this looks to be another petty, messy DISD argument that will be played out on TV. But however it turns out, this is exactly what the DISD board should be doing — they’re arguing and debating and discussing how we fund our children’s education, and that’s actually what we elected them to do (no sidestepped-election jokes please!).