The Dallas wealth divide and education
As with many other major cities, Dallas is divided into extremes of wealth, oftentimes geographically. Dallas is a sprawling metroplex; for those unfamiliar with the area, it can often take upwards of an hour just to get between Dallas and Fort Worth, making the “DFW metroplex” moniker more than a little ironic. Still, Dallas is a city, and deals with the same urban complexities that many other major urban areas deal with. It might seem ironic to discuss homelessness, unemployment and struggling schools in the same area that is currently experiencing a huge population increase and housing boom, but as Dallas expands the division between rich and poor continues to grow, with more people moving in than moving up.
Education in Dallas is itself often complicated by geographical challenges. Access to pre-K can be limited due to limited seats in a particular school building or area while other areas have an excess of pre-K seats. Pre-K is hardly the only geographically impacted educational issue. As with many districts around the country, school boundaries in Dallas are determined by geographic location- often by zip code. The concept, in its most simplistic form, makes sense— why ask parents to drive their children 10 to 20 minutes away when there is a school down the street? Still, this often results in socioeconomic separation and often school quality correlates: poorer neighborhoods often end up with poorer schools.
In his book “The Shame of The Nation,” Jonathan Kozol refers to this as segregation, pointing out that this issue disproportionately affects African American and Hispanic children. Many of Kozol’s examples are taken from his own experience in the Boston school system as well as his travels around the country. Texas is rarely cited, so I can’t speak to the examples that he uses, but nowhere is economic segregation more apparent than in two school districts in Dallas: Dallas ISD and Highland Park ISD. Even within Dallas ISD itself there are struggling schools and Blue Ribbon schools (schools awarded for achievement). Highland Park ISD is another story entirely, a wealthy district that sees exceptional schools graduate large classes of students every year. How can one high achieving school be a mere 5-10 minute drive from an extremely low performing school?
Dallas Morning News writer Rudolph Bush points out that the consequences of the school district attendance zones go further than the classroom. “The economic homogeneity that results creates enormous invisible costs, mainly in infrastructure, as people move further and further away from the city for ‘good’ schools, by which they often mean schools where poverty isn’t the defining factor of the student body,” he says in an opinion piece that followed a longer conversation on the debate over a bond package for HPISD that an anonymous emailer raised concerns would lead to low-income housing in the district.
How can we ensure that all children receive a quality education, regardless of whether they live in the wealthy half of a zip code? Solutions have been suggested: school choice, vouchers, charter schools, even bussing. Bush suggests a lottery-like system where school districts must serve a certain number of students nearby, as well as a certain number from further away. But such a solution isn’t easy to implement; not all parents can drive their children further away, creating a more complicated school bus system, and not all parents would be willing for their child to be sent to a different (and quite possibly worse) school. Parents in wealthier areas often moved there precisely so their children could attend those schools. So the complex question remains. Connor Schlegel raises the same question for Edu|FOCUS in the context of his locale, Pennsylvania. This is hardly an issue that is confined to Dallas, but the challenge is getting started: how do you begin to overcome the poverty gap? Are there models in the country that are working? And how can we gain the support to give our children the education they deserve?