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PART TWO of TURNING DALLAS AROUND: IT'S THE SCHOOLS STUPID By Scott Bennett Print E-mail
by Scott Bennett    Fri, Jan 6, 2006, 01:24 AM

I have a theory: If Santiago Calatrava designed every bridge in Dallas, if all our streets were paved with gold, and if both the crime and tax rates plummeted to zero, the middle class with kids would still be fleeing to the suburbs.

Why? Dallas schools would still be awful. And that is something the Dallas City Council cannot be blamed for - although it can play a major role in correcting it.

Before revealing the secret sauce for a turn-around let me provide credit due. Progress has been made from a very few years ago when a changing cast of embarrassing characters paraded through the Superintendent’s office and the School Board itself was meeting under armed guard. Mike Mosley took big strides in bringing order from chaos and new Superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, brings a sterling reputation from the Spring ISD near Houston. So far he has talked the talk and seems to be a man who listens and then acts. (It is a sad commentary that this alone can be taken for great progress.)

Let’s also give DISD’s some credit. Many elementary schools are racially mixed and have their share of poor kids and succeed nicely. Elementary Schools like Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Adams, Walnut Hill and others have students that score well on tests across all demographic segments. Indeed, some of the city’s highest achieving elementary schools are in the worst parts of town because Texas Instruments and other companies provide them enormous support for tutoring, after school programs and IT infrastructure.

Some high schools aren’t too bad either. Nearly all of the city’s “magnate schools” are good, and some like the Arts Magnate is outstanding. The city’s Talented and Gifted schools are racially mixed and magnificent. And some neighborhood high-schools are improving.

If this comes as a surprise to you I am not surprised. I only know because I have a five year old daughter and before I pile private school tuition on top of my considerable DISD taxes I wanted to see if we could use local elementary schools. We may not do so, but we surely can do so.

I will say that there are those prone to look for a conspiracy and believe DISD really doesn’t want a bunch of Anglo, or really middle-class kids of any type, attending these schools. The middle class brings pushy parents and neighborhood kids upset ethnic balances. I prefer to believe DISD doesn’t realize it needs to help neighborhood parents market these schools better.

Yet schools are still the primary obstacle to a Dallas renaissance. The challenge faced by DISD is daunting: 80% of its students are poor and one third speaks English as a second language – which means they don’t really speak English at all. (There are 88 first languages spoken within Dallas schools). Also, about half of all DISD kids have either one or no parent at home. There is also the problem of transience. Nearly one in four DISD students will not finish a school year in the school where they started. This means teachers hardly get to know a student and assess their needs before they are gone. The result is that nearly half of all DISD schools are considered non-performing. It is kind of hard to worry about bringing back the middle class when faced with such a tsunami of the poor.

It is hard to argue that resources are a problem. Dallas teachers are more experienced and paid better on average than any other major city school district, well above the state average, and even above the average for Highland Park. Dallas is also a high wealth district. Dallas area corporations such as Texas Instruments make enormous investments in Dallas schools.

It is also notable that good chunks of the City of Dallas lie outside of DISD and in wealthy districts such as Plano, Richardson, Irving, and even Highland Park. The Lake Highlands area of Dallas once boomed because it lay with the Richardson ISD. Alas, Richardson and other adjacent suburbs aren’t what they used to be any more than Dallas is. That is why the middle class exodus is now to the exurbs such as Melissa and Forney.

So is there a secret sauce? Yes: Charter schools.

What is a charter school? According to Texas law charter schools “are public schools that foster educational competition and offer parental choice in education. Charter schools have a significant amount of autonomy and are free to be innovative in educational and administrative practices.” Charter schools receive the same per pupil expenditure for maintenance and operations as other Texas public schools, but they do not receive capital funding .

What I am suggesting is that the City of Dallas create its own system of charter schools in partnership with a private foundation, and very likely with DISD itself (a school district can create charter schools). In effect, Dallas would develop a parallel system of public “charter” schools to supplement existing public schools.

Yes, the track record of charter schools is mixed, but a minority is outstanding. Others don’t get the job done. Usually, failing charter schools are the creation of educators who lack administrative ability. But there are stellar examples of achievement such as the North Hills School located in Irving. With more than 1200 students (grades 1 – 12) it has a waiting list of over 1000. It may be even more demographically mixed than the most DISD schools.

The advantage of a charter school is that while it must be open to all who want to enroll (assuming available space) those who do enroll do so by choice and must abide by a contract that establishes rules of discipline and unique educational programs that most regular schools cannot.

Now before DISD howls I should repeat that DISD might well be a partner in administering the schools as this would likely save money and make DISD a partner not an adversary.

The first City of Dallas Foundation Charter School should be an elementary school located in downtown Dallas. Probably, the next several schools should be the same. If you want to fill downtown office buildings put the best schools in North Texas in them so that office workers can bring their children to work with them and then have them an elevator ride away. Lord knows there is plenty of empty office space available. Wouldn’t it behoove many landlords to make tax deductible contributions of space for schools whose presence would help fill their buildings - largely at public expense?

What would the city’s role be? First, it would create and govern the Foundation and seek the charters. Next it would help line up land lords, possibly with an offer of additional tax breaks. The City would also provide money for limited capital funding. Then there is the matter of those downtown parks the city plans to build. It needs to make them kid friendly school playgrounds (it should do so anyway to attract young couples with kids). Finally, it should provide cops for security.

(Establishing a system of Charter Schools in downtown would have the added advantage of bringing some suburban tax dollars into the city as suburban parents chose to bring their kids to downtown Dallas Charter Schools.)

After the downtown system of elementary schools is complete (I would foresee about 10 such schools with around 4000 students) downtown middle schools and even a high school should be the next step. Beyond downtown the City should look at establishing special Charter Schools in particularly difficult neighborhoods such as Vickery in North Dallas as a supplement to the regular DISD schools. These schools would be aimed at addressing specific problems with special programs not and not at replacing existing schools.

And what of existing schools? First, DISD must do the job of educating the students it has. I have personally always thought schools should be community centers where police are present, where after school study halls and other activities offer a place away from violent neighborhoods or dysfunctional homes, and where there is interaction with people who live in the neighborhood. Clearly the City can do much to support after school programs and establish neighborhood watch programs operated from schools.

It also seems that there should be an expansion of summer school. As the Dallas News report noted, Chicago Mayor Richard Daily ordered 150,000 students to remedial summer school with considerable positive benefit. I never attended a summer school but I seem to recall that those who did often returned in the fall with a new focus on academics. The City should be able to play a complimentary roll in implementing such a program.

What the Mayor and City Council must realize is that all their other efforts are in vain if Dallas cannot provide an education system that the middle class is willing to use. It must realize that DISD is invisible to most residents of the City. If the turnout is low for City elections it is virtually non-existent for school board elections. The government of Dallas should take the lead in mobilizing the people of Dallas to establish a singular educational success among urban American cities.

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AN UNFORGETTABLE NIGHT AT THE ROSE BOWL By Tara Ross Print E-mail
by Special to DallasBlog.com    Fri, Jan 6, 2006, 01:08 AM

Wednesday was a good day to be a Texan. For the first time in more than three decades, the Texas Longhorns won the national football championship. I was lucky enough to be at the Rose Bowl for the occasion.

I should preface this article by saying that I'm not much of a sports person. As a UT law alum and the wife of an avid UT fan, I was perfectly happy to attend the game, of course. But let's be honest. When push comes to shove, I don't really care about football all that much. Or so I thought.
The atmosphere at the game bristled with energy and excitement. The stadium teemed with burnt orange shirts. Yes, I was wearing one, too - and a Texas baseball cap to boot.

Texans are used to seeing Longhorn fans break out with their forefinger and pinky pointed at the sky, but the Longhorn sign was quite a sight in California , I'm sure. I will confess that I am more used to linking my thumbs together in the air to symbolize the Rice Owls (where I got my BA), but I, too, got into the Longhorn spirit by the end of the night.

Everywhere you looked, you saw friends. Whether you previously knew them or not, by the end of the evening, they were your comrades in battle. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott sat with his wife and daughter, just a few rows away from me-and one row behind Texas fans Matthew McConaughey, Lance Armstrong, and Will Ferrell. I heard that Rick Perry was there and that people were trying to get pictures of our Governor, a Texas A&M alum, making the Longhorn sign. I don't know if anyone succeeded.

Congressmen, state senators, and state representatives were seen, rooting their team on. Railroad Commissioners Michael Williams and Victor Carillo made the trek from Austin to California . Williams is a USC alum, but a Texas native. I wonder who he was rooting for. Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz was there, lustily singing "The Eyes of Texas" following the UT victory.

With a little more than four minutes left in the game, UT was behind by 12 points, but soon UT’s star quarterback Vince Young ran into the end zone to bring the Longhorns within striking distance. The score was 38-33. My sister sent a text-message from Houston . We need one more touchdown! Soon, a critical decision by the USC coach gave Texas its opportunity.

About halfway down the field, on fourth down with two yards to go, USC decided to go for the first down, rather than to punt. The Texas defense crushed their effort, regaining the ball and sending the UT fans into a frenzy. My baseball cap flew from my head as someone's arms went flailing. People were jumping, yelling, and screaming. They knew that anything can happen, particularly with a quarterback like Young on your side. Soon, Young ran the ball into the end zone, on a 4th down, to score the go-ahead touchdown. Then he ran in the two-point conversion to lengthen the Texas lead. The score: 41-38.

In the UT stands, there was pandemonium, mass chaos, joy, laughter, and shouting. Strangers spontaneously hugged. They didn't think twice about it. It seemed natural; I high-fived with so many people that my hands stung. It was a great, festive, and wonderful moment, which was made complete 19 seconds later when the clock ran out and the UT victory was final.

As I said, I'm not really a sports fan, but that moment was one-of-a kind. I doubt that I will ever forget it. The only sports moment I know of that would have moved me more (had I been there) would have been the final ten seconds of the 1980 U.S. hockey game between Russia and the United States .

As with the 1980 hockey game, the underdog won for one reason, pure and simple. The U.S. hockey players wanted the victory more than their Russian counterparts, just as the UT players wanted the BCS championship more than the USC players. Vince Young, particularly, seemed as if he were on a mission to refute the choice of the Heisman electors a few weeks ago, when they awarded this year's trophy to USC running back Reggie Bush. Young practically willed the outcome of the UT game last night, carrying his team to victory. Afterwards, at the championship ceremony, he appropriately struck a Heisman pose.

Wednesday night was an unforgettable moment that will live on in the memories of Texans for years and years to come. Let's give our boys a hero's welcome as they return to Texas .

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MIKE COCHRAN’S UPCOMING BIOGRAPHY OF CLAYTON WILLIAMS JR. by Tom Pauken Print E-mail
by Tom Pauken    Thu, Jan 5, 2006, 01:11 PM

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Clayton Williams Jr.
Longtime Texas journalist Mike Cochran is writing an authorized biography of the colorful Texan Clayton Williams, Jr., which is expected to be completed this spring and published in the fall. The likely publisher is the Texas A&M Press.

Cochran was with the Associated Press for 39 years, opening its Ft. Worth bureau and covering West Texas throughout much of his career. He also was a senior reporter for the Ft. Worth Star Telegram for more than four years and is the author of a book on the Cullen Davis murder case entitled Texas v. Davis.

While Cochran’s biography will highlight Williams’ business career as one of Texas’ most successful entrepreneurs, it also will cover in detail Claytie Williams’ unsuccessful campaign for Governor in 1990.

I was working for a Dallas venture capital company at the time and volunteered to help in the Williams campaign. I liked Claytie Williams personally and thought that he would make a good governor for our State. He was a Goldwater/Reagan conservative and a man who was not afraid to make tough decisions as a businessman – a trait that I thought would serve him well as Governor.

I helped Claytie prepare for his debates with his Republican primary opponents in which he did well. He defeated Kent Hance who was the early favorite and whose campaign was managed by Karl Rove. (Yes, that’s the same Karl Rove.) Williams won the Republican primary without a runoff. He went into the general election campaign with a 20 point lead over Ann Richards.

Then, the professional handlers took over. Volunteer advisers were pushed aside by the highly paid, politically hired guns; and Clayton Williams’ attention to the race was diverted by a tragic private air crash which killed a number of the key executives in his energy business. Meanwhile, his "hired guns" were giving him bad advice in a campaign that he should have won easily.

First, they sent Williams off on a weekend camping trip at his ranch with capitol political reporters in a "getting to know one another" session designed to show off Claytie as a "working cowboy". The journalists got some great stories over the campfire as Claytie made some off the cuff remarks and jokes which would have been better left unsaid. The comments landed Williams in big trouble politically once they hit the front pages of Texas dailies. The weekend at the ranch "PR campaign" turned out to be a bad idea.

The advisors made some other bad calls during the course of the general election campaign. Yet, even with all of his problems, Williams maintained a narrow lead over Richards until the very end of the race. Williams’ handlers persuaded the candidate not to shake Ann Richards hand at a final debate the two had at the Lakewood Country Club in Dallas. I was in the back of the room at the time, and one of the campaign "hired guns" asked me what I thought. I told him that I thought they had just lost the election.

The campaign aide had a shocked look on his face and walked away from me. Unfortunately, I was right; and Claytie Williams lost narrowly to Ann Richards. The sad thing about the "handshake incident" is that it was so unlike Claytie Williams who is one of the most gracious and down-to-earth people you will ever meet. It is too bad he followed some bum advice from his political consultants on that occasion. Had he followed his instincts and been his usual gracious self with Ms. Richards, he probably would have been Governor of Texas.

Had Williams won, the history of Texas and American politics would have been very different over the past decade. Claytie Williams would have run for re-election as Governor of Texas in 1994. George W. Bush likely would never have been elected Governor of Texas or President of the United States. What a difference a failed handshake made.

Since his political defeat, Clayton Williams, Jr. has gone on to even greater success in the energy business. But, what I like about Claytie Williams is that he is a real Texan in the best sense of that word. Claytie is gracious to people of all walks of life; and, if he gives you his word, you can take it to the bank. I really look forward to reading Mike Cochran’s story of this Texas giant, -- a man I am proud to have known in my lifetime. Now, more Texans will get to know the real Clayton Williams, Jr.

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TOP TEN PREDICTIONS FOR 2006 by Tara Ross Print E-mail
by DallasBlog.com    Thu, Jan 5, 2006, 01:00 PM

2005 was a year full of surprises. A long-feared, levee-destroying storm overwhelmed New Orleans. Two Supreme Court vacancies confronted the President. A new pope was elected. Britain subways were attacked. Americans fought over the feeding tube of a lone, brain-damaged woman in Florida. Fires raged in Paris suburbs. Alabama began a boycott of Aruba.

A year from now, what will we say about 2006? We can’t know, of course, but here are a few guesses.

  1. The Texas gubernatorial race will be a spectacle. The incumbent, Rick Perry, will successfully fight off his challengers, but only after a tough contest. Other states will see similarly messy campaigns. In Ohio, Republican Secretary of State Ken Blackwell will be faced with bad press due to the many scandals of the outgoing Republican Governor, Bob Taft. Blackwell will nevertheless win election.
  2. A surprising number of conservatives will not back Republican incumbent Rick Santorum in this year’s Pennsylvania Senate race. They have never forgiven him for his rabid endorsement of liberal Republican Arlen Specter in 2004, when Specter narrowly defeated his challenger, the more conservative Pat Toomey. Conservatives will abstain from voting in 2006, or they will vote for the pro-life Democrat challenger, Bob Casey, Jr. Ultimately, the Senate race will conclude with a Democratic upset. In New York, Richard Nixon’s son-in-law, Ed Cox, will challenge Hillary Clinton. He will win a larger-than-expected percentage of the vote, but he will lose as Clinton collects an unending stream of money from Hollywood. Republicans will maintain control of the Senate—but barely.
  3. Samuel Alito will be confirmed to the Supreme Court, but the hearings will be much more vicious than expected. Another Supreme Court vacancy will arise. The President will once again fail to nominate Judge Michael Luttig or Judge Edith Jones, instead appointing Judge Karen Williams of the Fourth Circuit. The Senate hearings will be even more partisan and brutal than those for Alito.
  4. The charges against Tom Delay will not result in a conviction, but the case will not be resolved in time for him to maintain his status as majority leader. His re-election bid in November will be hampered not only by the ethics charges, but also by his recent failure to admit that federal spending is out-of-control. Nationally, Republicans will lose seats in the House, but they will maintain their majority status.
  5. The summer will feature several devastating Category Five hurricanes. New Orleans will be under water—again. Nevertheless, politicians will still lack the courage to admit that perhaps it is an irresponsible and wasteful use of federal tax dollars to rebuild some of the lower-lying portions of New Orleans. Republicans will be chastised endlessly for the actions of Mother Nature.
  6. Liberal Democrats will continue to harp on the warrantless search program implemented by the Bush administration. They will avoid the legitimate public policy debate that should be had about the balance between civil liberties and national security, instead castigating Republicans incessantly and hoping that they can lay the groundwork for impeachment proceedings.
  7. Iraq’s new government will continue to organize itself. Matters in Iraq will continue to progress. The media will continue to ignore positive stories about improved life in Iraq, instead focusing on negative, sensational stories.
  8. Someone, somewhere will (unfortunately) disappear. Her disappearance will be covered for months on end on Greta Van Susteren’s Fox show.
  9. Texas legislators will not be able to agree on a permanent school finance solution. This commentator will be disappointed that no good solution was implemented, but will continue to be relieved that, at the very least, we have avoided the imposition of the terrible solutions that have so far been proposed.
  10. The Houston Astros will win the World Series.
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ABRAMOFF’S LAWYER CUTS A GREAT DEAL FOR HIS CLIENT by Tom Pauken Print E-mail
by Tom Pauken    Wed, Jan 4, 2006, 02:21 PM

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Abbe Lowell
Jack Abramoff hired himself a good criminal defense lawyer in Abbe Lowell, a well-connected Washington insider. Indicted on three counts of conspiracy, mail fraud, and tax evasion, Abramoff could have faced up to 30 years of prison time. By cooperating with the Federal prosecutors in their ongoing investigation of improper activities by Washington lobbyists and politicians, Abramoff now faces a maximum sentence of 11 years with the opportunity to have that time reduced. Getting such a substantial reduction in the time his client will have to serve in prison is quite an achievement for Abbe Lowell, particularly since Abramoff is viewed as the central figure (and most culpable party) involved in this Washington-based scandal.

Lowell is a longtime Democrat who worked on Jimmy Carter’s Presidential campaign. According to Julia Campbell of Court TV, Lowell was Bill Clinton’s chief defender "as the chief investigator hired by the Democrats on the House Judicial Committee" when Congress was considering the impeachment of President Clinton. Abbe Lowell also represented Congressman Gary Condit who was under suspicion in the disappearance of Chandra Levy. Other politicians represented by Lowell include former House Speaker Jim Wright and Rep. Patrick Kennedy, according to Ms. Campbell.

The London Daily Telegraph today referred to Abramoff as "Casino Jack". Just the other day I named Jack Abramoff as "the bad guy of the year", in an article here at DallasBlog. Reading the allegations in his indictment will give you some idea of the level of corruption involving Abramoff.

Now that Abramoff’s lawyer has saved his client from having to spend the rest of his life in prison, we will soon see who Abramoff will take down with him. Understandably, a lot of folks who have been involved with Abramoff over the past decade are very nervous right now. Criminal defense attorneys in the D.C. area will be making a lot of money over the next couple of years, thanks to Jack Abramoff.

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