A next chapter for Dallas Dance: How Baltimore County's disgraced superintendent can make amends

Just like everything associated with his tenure as Baltimore County superintendent, Dallas Dance’s tweeted apology upon his release from jail Monday morning has produced a polarized response. About half of those who tweeted back about his attempt to “deeply and sincerely apologize” and promise to continue working to impact the lives of students positively offered amens. The other half responded with denunciations, calling him a disgrace, thief and liar. We have a foot in both camps. Mr. Dance lied to us about his consulting work, even as we defended him from broader attacks on his leadership and policies and urged the school board to provide him a second four-year contract. At the same time, we recognize the importance of his efforts to shake the county schools out of a sleepy complacency regarding the changes and challenges they face. It’s doubtful that Mr. Dance will ever lead a large school district again (though stranger things have happened), but he can still make an enormous difference in the lives of students. Here’s how.

Dallas Dance will be remembered in Baltimore County as a cautionary tale because of his ethical misdeeds. He accepted tens of thousands of dollars in consulting fees from education-related companies, including one for which he arranged a no-bid contract with the school system, without reporting the income on his financial disclosure forms and in violation of an agreement not to accept outside employment. To his detractors, that will be the end of the story. The district hired a young hotshot and got burned.

But his supporters see something else — a leader who recognized the risk that Baltimore County’s rapidly changing demographics could lead to two realities within the district, one of high-performing, affluent and generally white schools, and one of schools dominated by lower-income, predominantly minority students who face much greater academic and social struggles. Providing equal resources across the district’s schools was not enough. Unless the district took immediate steps to ensure equity of opportunity, the county was destined for a separate and unequal school system.

That’s not just a Baltimore County story, it’s a national one. De facto educational segregation is, in many areas, as bad as it has been at any time since the time immediately after the Supreme Court outlawed legal segregation more than 60 years ago. In some cases, that’s a reflection of our segregated housing patterns, and in some places, it’s a result of decisions about where to draw school attendance zone boundaries that exacerbate the problem. (As it would happen, Vox.com posted an excellent explanation of the issue — including a tool to allow readers to view data about their own districts — on the same morning Mr. Dance was released from jail.)

Last year, The Sun’s Liz Bowie and Erica Green detailed the failures of school districts throughout the Baltimore region to address educational segregation, including in Baltimore County. Mr. Dance was quoted in that series as saying that if he had stood up to advocate for affirmative desegregation during a debate about redrawing the lines for southwestern Baltimore County elementary schools, he would have been fired. Well, he’s out of a job now anyway, so there’s no harm in his speaking his mind.

When big districts like Baltimore County seek to redraw district lines to reflect shifts in population, part of the job is technical. But much more difficult is working with the affected communities to solicit input and balance competing concerns. Parents, understandably, tend to take a parochial view of process, looking out for what they perceive to be their own children’s best interests and not what might be in the common good. School district leaders tend to mollify those with the most political clout (typically, whiter, more affluent communities) rather than to use the exercise as an opportunity to foster a more equal society. Someone needs to enter the process as an apostle of the value of diversity in the classroom, not just for minorities or poor students but for everyone. Mr. Dance achieved the remarkable distinction of leading a district in which black student graduation rates actually exceeded those of white students by the end of his tenure. It wasn’t because the white graduation rate slipped (it remained above the state average), but because his focus on equity worked.

Before his fall from grace, Mr. Dance’s claim to fame was his focus on educational technology, in particular his initiative to put a laptop in every student’s hands. The question about how best to integrate technology into the classroom is a pressing one, with emerging science and little consensus. There is an opportunity for someone to make a mark in that field, but Mr. Dance’s crimes make it unlikely he’ll be that person. The role of our schools exacerbating or ameliorating racial and economic inequality is just as pressing, and Mr. Dance has the passion and experience to make a difference in that arena. We hope — not for his sake but for that of millions of children whose future depends on it — that he dedicates himself fully to that work.

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