The College Admissions Scandal America Ignored

We all know Felicity Huffman did wrong, but in Dallas alone wealthy parents have extracted millions and millions in value from magnet schools not designed for their children.

There are countless different ways to pursue educational opportunity — some costly, some illegal (like the college admissions scandal that ensnared Ivy Leagues and celebrity kids), and some less so. Rob Stegall moved 15 miles south from Richardson, Texas, to a new home situated within the Dallas Independent School District to secure his daughter’s admission to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. He did this because he sensed that Booker T., which counts the singers Erykah Badu, Edie Brickell, and Norah Jones among its alumni, a $55 million theater, state-of-the-art dance studios, and a competitive acceptance rate, might offer an opportunity for a talented teenager interested in pursuing a career in theater. And he was not wrong. In 2019, the 250 seniors making up Booker T.’s graduating class received $62 million in scholarships, roughly $250,000 per student, to elite colleges across the country — with Julliard taking half of its incoming dance majors from the one magnet school.

Stegall’s daughter would have had a shot at Booker T. from outside the district — she was initially waitlisted — but the school prioritizes in-district students, who get what is called the “right of first refusal.” When all in-district students are accepted and either take or don’t take their spot at the school, and the waitlist of Dallas residents has been gone through and settled, a separate waitlist of out of district students is considered, who are allowed to attend but are not given priority over DISD taxpayers. Stegall’s daughter, who was on that waitlist, had plenty of kids waiting for the call that might change their adolescent life. It makes sense, then, that Stegall was advised by the school’s theater director that a change in address would likely yield a change in admission status. And it did when his daughter joined the class of 2014.

Stegall was happy. His daughter was happy. His wife was happy. It took months before any of them realized something was off.

“Late into her freshman year, as I got to know the other parents and figured out that they lived all over the place,” Stegall recalls. “Things didn’t add up.”

On weekends, Rob would drive his daughter to sleepovers in wealthy suburbs like Frisco, Allen, and Plano — towns 30 to 45 minutes away from Booker T. campus (further away than even Richardson). Confounded, Stegall started keeping tabs. He now estimates that 50 percent of his daughters’ friends weren’t living in the district at a time when Booker T. claimed the vast majority of its enrolled students hailed from Dallas proper — maybe 10 exceptions per grade. He’d drop his daughter off in towns with more than twice the median household income of Dallas and wonder how other parents had gotten their children into Booker T. without moving.

In the spring of 2019, some five years after his daughter’s graduation, Stegall finally got his answer when the Advocate reporter Keri Mitchell broke a story about how elite, suburban, wealthy parents had gamed the admissions system at Booker T. Some parents had rented apartment, others had taken out water and utility bills in their name at friend’s properties. This was not dissimilar to the College Admissions Scandal that made national news thanks to a few famous names, but it was far more extreme: Discounting the value of an exceptional high school experience, math suggests that out-of-district parents conspired to loot an eight-figure sum from a community resource, pulling millions and millions out of a lower-income community for the monthly installments of the $1,200 needed to rent an empty apartment.

After the Advocate piece went live, DISD announced more rigorous address verification and on the first day of the 2019-2020 school year, some 30 students didn’t show.

Everyone loves a story with a villain. The devil gets all the best lines. But villains can serve as a distraction from villainy and, in the case of magnet school admissions, the College Admissions Scandal has soaked up ink and diverted focus from more common and more damaging behavior. Wealthy parents in Dallas — and in many other cities across the country — steal access to opportunity and to colleges from members of communities that finance great public institutions. These acts of class warfare, perpetrated by rich and nearly rich parents, rarely grab national headlines, but the monetary value of these abuses dwarfs that of a few spots bought by celebrities at a handful of elite universities.

“My bigger thought was how incredibly unfair it was to less privileged kids with talent who lived in-district, and who couldn’t get into the school,” says Stegall. “ It would have been very awkward to have that conversation with my daughter because it was her friends who were taking those spots. I really didn’t want to disparage them. And it’s not the kids’ fault, you know?”

I attended Booker T., from 2008 to 2012. At the time, I had some sense that I was very lucky. The school itself, which underwent renovations to the tune of dozens of millions of dollars, just before I attended, had a Black box theater, dozens of rooms with vinyl flooring for dancers, movement studios for actors, state of the art gaffing equipment, and rooms filled with drafting tables. In every sense, the school provided a perfect opportunity for kids who wanted to train in theatre or dance — and to further pursue that dream in college.

Not only did I feel fortunate to attend Booker T., I was. I was part of what might be called the colonization of Booker T. The Freedman’s Town neighborhood surrounding Booker T., where Downtown and Uptown Dallas meet was settled after the Civil War by former slaves. At the turn of the 20th century, Booker T. was once called “Colored School #2” and was the only school in the District black students could attend until city-wide desegregation efforts triggered by the verdict in Tasby v. Estes reached its doorstep.

Before Booker T. became what it’s known today, there were so many students enrolled at “Colored School #2” that school days were held in shifts: with the first wave of students attending until lunchtime and the second wave attending after. Booker T. became a magnet school in 1976 when it was desegregated by circuit judges William Taylor and Sarah Hughes. In 1981, Judge Barefoot Sanders (yes, really) ordered a desegregation plan which dictated that the student body be 33 percent white, 33 percent black, and 33 percent Hispanic. In 2003, the federal order ended after district officials and the courts decided that DISD had been sufficiently desegregated. Today, the Dallas school district is roughly 25 percent African-American, 70 percent Hispanic and five percent white. Booker T. students are 48 percent white, 27 percent Hispanic, and 21 percent black. In DISD, 86.7 percent of students are economically disadvantaged. At Booker T, just 24 percent are.

My sophomore year there, the incoming freshman class was different. I recognized many of them were not from Dallas but were from far-flung corners of the metroplex; most of them went to middle schools like Parkhill or Renner. They were wealthier. They drove brand new Jeeps. And each class behind me, it felt, got whiter and whiter, and wealthier and wealthier. One night, at a party of a friend of a friend, I stumbled into a room filled floor to ceiling with illegal game — the foot of an elephant, a bust of a giraffe. This was not, realistically, the type of house that someone who went to public school in Dallas would live in.

But that was part of the Booker T. experience. It was not dissimilar to school events like speeches from Kevin Bacon, Glenn Close, and Isabella Rosselini. The place felt elite. We had writing workshops. Costume budgets. Sewing rooms full of Brother sewing machines. Entire semesters were devoted to stage makeup. We wrote and produced plays and were given access to high-end lighting rigs and technology.

And we took parental malfeasance as a given. We drove out to Richardson on the weekends and never asked ourselves how those kids from Richardson got in in the first place. We — I — did not understand the magnitude of the theft we were witnessing. We didn’t have a sense of the broader picture.

Just three years ago, another elite magnet, Charleston, South Carolina based Academic Magnet High School came under fire for a similar (if not exactly the same) scandal. Post and Courier reporter Steve Bailey wrote about what he referred to as a scandal hidden in plain sight: AMHS, one of the most elite magnets in the area, had slowly become overwhelmingly white. Over the course of a decade, the school went from being 23 percent black in a district that was more than 40 percent black to being 3 percent black in a district that largely hadn’t change. In one class, only two out of 150 students were black. Only three of the 41 teachers were black.

The admissions process at AMHS was “race-blind,” using a 15 point admissions system based on test scores, essays, a writing sample, and teacher recommendations. Without race being a factor, slowly, over time, fewer and fewer black kids were admitted. This shouldn’t have been surprising: When schools turn to so-called “color-blind” admissions to, in this case, “increase equality in the admissions process,” this happens almost every time. Race, in these particular circumstances, doesn’t just mean skin color. It means money. America’s black communities lack wealth and are, as such, vulnerable to white-collar shakedowns by monied parents able and willing to play games with admission processes. There is almost always a racial component to magnet school scandals even if the perceived transgressor is not always white. Negatively affected communities are almost always heavily black.

Earlier this summer, Bruce Holsinger, a novelist, released Gifted, which tells the story of pediatric neurologist engaged in what Holsinger calls “privilege hoarding.” This is perhaps the best term we have for what the parents of Booker T. were up to. Some did this legally. Stegall didn’t break any laws, but he used money to secure access to opportunity — and others did this extralegally — think of all those fake water bills. For most, it worked. Privilege hoarding tends to be successful. That’s half the reason it’s such a common behavior.

The other half, of course, is parental ambition.

“You don’t just want your kid to do well. You want your kids to do better than other people’s kids,” says Peter Enrich, a professor of law at Northeastern University. “What you really want is to get your kid into the excellent colleges, which are highly competitive, so that they can get into the graduate programs that can prepare them for real success.” Enrich adds that while, in an ideal world, we’d set up a system where parents not only do the best for their kid but the best for everyone else’s kids as well, we do not. “That’s not the natural way that someone who has primarily focused on their own children’s success is going to think,” he explains.

It’s a tragedy of the commons that Booker T., once one of the most disadvantaged schools in the DISD, now exists as a haven for upper-middle-class students. It’s also a bit ironic, a refutation of its namesake claim that “Nothing ever comes to one, that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.” Hard work may have taken place, but it wasn’t that of the kids. It was the hard work of parents hell-bent on keeping the privilege in their hands, and out of the hands of kids who might hvae needed it the most.

“You look at the demographics of the school, and it’s really not culturally or economically representative of DISD,” says Stegall. “That’s not to say that those kids that got in were not talented — because they are. But that’s not really the purpose of that being a public school. These kids are getting an arts education for free, basically. A lot of those kids could have gone to private schools and accomplished the same thing.”

His equivocation is important to register because the problem isn’t the kids. The wealthy students I attended Booker T. with were talented and hard working. They were also children and not responsible for the behavior of their parents. That said, we were all products of a specific mindset, one that allowed us to brush off corruption, ignore it, or normalize it as part of “what people did.”

That’s the cultural issue. The money issue is less nebulous and has to do with the way that school districts are funded by property taxes, a system that works well for the well-off and poorly for the poor. Magnet schools represent such a significant resource because they provide a rich-school opportunity in poor school districts. Dallas doesn’t have many great schools. Booker T. is a standout. But the people it was designed to serve aren’t in an economic position to counter raids from the suburbs, where events like PTA auctions already subsidize school spending.

Magnet schools are created to reduce inequity. These schools exist, at least in part, as a reaction to the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that found that school funding isn’t the sole determinant of success for a school district, maintaining the system of property taxes as a way to fund schools. In Massachusetts, where school funding is based on need rather than local taxes, magnet school issues are less pressing because opportunity doesn’t pool in specific locations that attract interest from those eager to extract value.

“One of the challenges for magnet schools, charter schools, and voucher systems, is that although proponents of them sometimes say that it’s a way to achieve some goals of socioeconomic and racial integration, those systems tend to overwhelmingly favor kids from more privileged backgrounds,” says Enrich. “Kids from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to be eased out of those schools even if they get into them and less likely to be aware of them or to know how to access them in the first place.”

In a sense, cities that operate magnet schools are piling money in a bank vault with a very, very, small padlock and just hoping no one with a hammer will break it. Inevitably they do, and no alarms sound. People seem to shrug it off. It was so easy. Who can blame them?

But theft is theft.

For as much ink as was spilled over the College Admission Scandal that led to the brief imprisonment of Felicity Huffman and the public pillory of Aunt Becky, somewhere on the order of $25 million seems to have changed hands. More value is being stolen by affluent parents working within the public school systems on a weekly, if not monthly, basis. This sort of privilege hoarding has led to a few stories and maybe some social awkwardness, but zero prosecutions. The parents of the 30 students who didn’t show up to Booker T. this year have not been jailed, although in late February of 2020, a Texas-based crime-stoppers organization offered a $5,000 reward for information on any student who “should not be attending school because they don’t live in the district.” As of yet, their names are unknown outside the small community that abetted their actions.

“From the beginning, I never thought it was okay,” says Stegall, looking back at the scandal that unfolded in front of him. “But I never blamed the kids. A 14-year-old is not responsible for that decision. Moving was disruptive, but we thought we were doing what we had to do — which, clearly, was not the case. Some of my daughter’s best friends’ parents did this. It’s unconscionable. The kids who this program was designed to give an opportunity to didn’t get that opportunity, plain and simple.”