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Dallas High Schoolers Take On The State's Tough Issues In New Debate Competition

Bill Zeeble
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings at the inaugural Mayor's Cup debate in the chamber of Old Parkland Hospital.

Dallas high schoolers recently debated a topic that's dominated Texas headlines — school vouchers — in the Mayor's Cup, a new high school debate competition organized by the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance. The inaugural event was hosted by Mayor Mike Rawlings and Harlan Crow at Old Parkland Thursday.

Kicking off the debate, North Dallas High junior Kathy Nguyen declared her team’s position on school vouchers, which would give families state money to pay for private school.

“In affirming tonight’s resolution,” Nguyen said, “we will argue that rather than enhancing our education system, vouchers deprive children of an equal opportunity for a good education and instead leave the most needy students behind.”  

Sounding equally confident, Sophie Rahman, a sophomore at the Science and Engineering Magnet, stated her team’s opposite view.

“Many Texas schools remain on the failing school list. The most needy students deserve better options. And that is why we need education vouchers,” Rahman says. 

Vouchers – one of today’s hot legislative topics in Texas – didn’t get resolved in the Mayor’s Cup contest. Mayor Rawlings wasn’t expecting students to resolve it. But, he’s glad they’re taking on tough issues because he says students benefit. He had the idea for a mayor’s debate last year.

“And then I started thinking about the issues that happen in politics all the time, and everybody hates everybody. OK? And everybody’s yelling at everybody,” Rawlings says. “And everybody’s in social media and everybody’s tweeting each other, and it’s like these are important issues. We should debate them in a civil manner. And if adults can’t do it, maybe kids could.”

The mayor talked to developer Harlan Crow about hosting this event. Crow built a state-of-the-art, wood-paneled debate chamber at the Old Parkland hospital. Then, Rawlings approached Adam Powell, who runs the Dallas Urban Debate Alliance. The 10-year-old organization teaches 1,000 Dallas ISD kids. Powell calls debate a great equalizer.

“We see students that come in, they may be marginal student, maybe a ‘C’ student. But over time, after year one, after year two, year three in the program, they become more academically engaged and we start to see those grades increase exponentially,” Powell says.

It didn’t take Kevin Malonson’s kids at Florence Middle School even that long to become better critical thinkers and public communicators.  

“This is a school that is 96 percent free-and-reduced lunch, about 98 percent African American or Latino students. The kind of school people say these kids can’t do it. And they jumped right into it and started to win awards,” Malonson says.

Ask debaters — both winners and losers — whether debate’s about winning those awards, and you get a surprising response. Victor Pena, a senior at Thomas Jefferson High, was on the winning team.

“Honestly,” Pena says, “I don’t think this is a win for our debate team. I think this is more of a win for ‘team debate,’ because Dallas Urban Debate program — it’s helped me lot.”

Pena’s opponents Ricardo Rodriguez, from W.T. White, and Sophie Rahman, offered similar takes.

“What the purpose of debate is,” Rahman said, “is to bring out these issues in front of the public and talk about them. So we’re glad that we’re able to do that.”

Rodriguez added: “Well, at the end of the day, I don’t think winning really matters. At the end it matters the impact we do in our society and our community in general. We learn so much just being here, you know?”

These high school kids hope others come away from the Mayor’s Cup with the same lessons.  

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.