By Jim Schutze
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His voice sounds so familiar--deep, resonant, dweebishly articulate--as he defends George W. Bush in front of a swarm of stinging reporters. His face is also hard to forget, though the years have wrinkled his brow and doubled his chin. He looks rounder in the middle, yet at 52, former Dallas school board President Sandy Kress is still a powerful presence, exuding the understated arrogance that comes with believing you have everyone beaten on the facts. Always.
His likeness rarely intrudes on the public consciousness--at least not in Dallas. In 1997, he moved to Austin, disappointed, disheartened, some even say disgraced, after his racially charged tenure on the school board. But that doesn't stop him from taking on the media in a Republican Party campaign office right across the street from the Democratic National Convention. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush has sent Kress and the so-called Texas Truth Squad--Democrats all--to Los Angeles in August to get downright aggressive with members of the press who might mistake the rhetoric coming out of the convention as something approaching truth.
Why would Kress, a longtime Democrat, help stage a sideshow for the Republican Party? He was a former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman, a Democratic congressional candidate, a member of the Democratic Leadership Council. Yet he comes to Hollywood as the anti-Gore, playing stand-up guy for the guv and spinning the "Texas story" on education.
On the campaign trail, Bush touts the success of the state's accountability system--"the Texas miracle"--which tests kids regularly and holds schools and teachers responsible for the results. To defend the Texas system against critics who claim that it is more myth than miracle, Bush often relies on Kress, one of his informal campaign advisors.
Education reform is the reason Bush sent Kress to Los Angeles. Kress owns the issue in Texas. He has lobbied for it, fought for it, and in Dallas, committed political suicide over it. Kress has become the chief campaign cheerleader for this state's accountability system, and for good reason: As Dallas school board president, he practically gave birth to the idea. And what a painful delivery it was.
The district's accountability reforms weren't just a passion for a lifelong politico turned über-policy wonk. For him, they were a holy crusade to help minority children--and all the justification he needed to ride roughshod over anyone who stood in his way. Unfortunately, those people generally were black.
African-Americans were already predisposed to see Kress as the latest white guy who was going to tell black people how to educate their kids. Because he excluded from the DISD power structure those who opposed him, blacks viewed him with just as much apprehension as they did his reforms. That Kress was a sophisticated political operative didn't help his standing when he engaged in a style of hardball politics never before experienced by the DISD board. He viewed any challenge to his reforms as a challenge to him personally. His blind conviction to do what he believed was the right thing for all kids--blacks, Latinos, Anglos--helped set the stage for one of the most racially divisive periods in the history of DISD.
Even after he moved his law practice to Austin, he didn't let go of the accountability issue. Kress became a lobbyist for statewide business interests that found a real-world simplicity in a system that motivates principals and teachers to educate by giving cash rewards to schools where students performed well on standardized tests, and punishing schools that performed poorly. When former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock signed onto the plan in 1993, and Gov. Bush committed himself to it again in 1995, accountability gained an unshakable foothold in Texas.
That Kress could succeed statewide and beyond when he was so tarnished by his DISD tenure is as much a testament to his intellectual acumen as his overarching ambition.
In the presidential campaign, accountability remains a political buzzword, though it has different meanings depending on which party is espousing it. But if George W. Bush is elected president, robust accountability may well become the bedrock of federal education policy. Whether about education or politics, kids or candidates, winning or losing, accountability has arrived.
And in its wake, so has Sandy Kress.
Certainly his political leanings have been to the right of center ever since 1980, when he left the Carter administration and returned to Dallas to join the downtown law firm of Johnson & Swanson. John Johnson, the firm's founder, was a Republican and very much a power player in local politics. Dallas had always been run by a business elite that came to the table, cut their deals, and then let their lawyers draw up the papers to make it all legal. Johnson, who represented friend and oil man Ray Hunt, was one of the first lawyers invited to the table.
Though they were of different political persuasions, Kress proved to be a good hire for Johnson, who headed a small breakfast club that endorsed candidates in nonpartisan city and school board elections. Former school trustee and city council member Jerry Bartos was a recipient of their beneficence and met weekly with Kress, Johnson, and other business leaders to discuss issues coming before the school board.