The Resurrection of Sandy Kress

Or, how a Democrat and reviled former DISD board president found a happy home pushing "educational acoountability" for the GOP

"Kress was such an enigma," Bartos recalls. "I liked him, but he was unusual--a progressive Democrat who was all tied in with the business community."

Kress had been raised in a Dallas family that considered liberal politics one of the basic food groups. His mother, Pauline, a Yellow Dog Democrat and community activist, would schlep young Sandy with her to do campaign grunt work.

Off to college in 1967, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, which became the epicenter of countercultural rage. But Kress was no hellion, and he did what any good politico might do: He organized a political party, got himself elected campus vice president, and protested the war by trying to lobby Congress through conventional political means.

Sandy Kress sits in his Austin law office, a few blocks away from the state capitol, where his reputation as an advocate for educational issues has not been sullied by his racially divisive tenure as DISD school board president.
John Anderson
Sandy Kress sits in his Austin law office, a few blocks away from the state capitol, where his reputation as an advocate for educational issues has not been sullied by his racially divisive tenure as DISD school board president.
Sandy Kress sits in his Austin law office, a few blocks away from the state capitol, where his reputation as an advocate for educational issues has not been sullied by his racially divisive tenure as DISD school board president.
John Anderson
Sandy Kress sits in his Austin law office, a few blocks away from the state capitol, where his reputation as an advocate for educational issues has not been sullied by his racially divisive tenure as DISD school board president.

As a law student at the University of Texas, Kress was elected student body president, mobilizing a new wave of student activism in Austin politics. "We became a pretty serious political force," recalls Kress, whose grassroots student campaigns helped elect Sarah Weddington and Gonzalo Barrientos to the statehouse and Bob Bullock to the Comptroller's Office.

Austin, however, couldn't contain Kress' political ambitions. After taking the Texas Bar exam, he joined a law firm in Washington, D.C., and later became an advance man for Democratic vice-presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1976.

Payoff for his efforts came in the form of a job in the Carter administration--deputy to the assistant secretary of legislative affairs in the Treasury Department. For the next three years, he would lobby Congress on behalf of Treasury.

After Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, Kress began to reinvent himself as a new Democrat, one who sought to push his party more to the right, creating a more conservative agenda designed to appeal to the broad middle of the party.

In 1986, Kress decided to put his philosophy to the test and ran for Dallas County Democratic Party chairman. He faced stiff opposition from old party bosses such as Bob Greenberg, who believed Kress was too closely aligned with the Republican business establishment to be its outspoken critic. But Kress came on strong from the beginning, his aggressive campaign style assuring him a safe margin of victory.

During his four years as Democratic county chairman, Kress could do little to stem the Republican tide as Democrats lost nearly every county election. Yet he was a strong leader, an articulate spokesman, and in the process of raising the party's profile, he also raised his own.

Opportunity came for Kress in 1989 when U.S. Rep. John Bryant announced he was running for Texas attorney general. Kress didn't just throw his hat into the ring, he raised more money than any non-incumbent congressional candidate in the country. But by the filing deadline, Bryant had a change of heart, claiming that Texans needed him to remain in Washington.

"I was all dressed up with no place to go," Kress says. "But I wasn't going to run against an incumbent."

Kress says the reversal unsettled him, souring him on partisan politics. "I began to pray about what to do next, and it occurred to me that I was more interested in finding an issue that I could become possessed by." During a quiet weekend with his wife, he decided that issue was education.

Through his mother and Democratic politics, Kress knew school board trustee Yvonne Ewell, one of three African-Americans on the DISD board in 1990. He arranged a meeting at her house, where Kress told Ewell that he was concerned that scores on standardized tests, particularly among minority children, had begun to plateau in recent years. Early gains attributable to court-ordered desegregation at the district were being lost. He knew the board was interested in passing a bond issue and argued that a bond package would be more sellable to voters and the business community if it included reforming what was going on in the classrooms.

Kress was persuasive. Ewell went to the full board and recommended that Kress chair a committee to study education reform within DISD.

She would regret it.


Even before the Committee on Educational Excellence (which became known as the Kress Commission) issued its final report in June 1991, Kress became embroiled in controversy. Worried that school trustees would just put his reform plans on some dusty shelf, Kress began playing hardball: Using business community money to mail out fliers, he invited taxpayers to town hall meetings to gather comments and support for his reforms.

The fliers were attacked by school board members, particularly black trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, who told The Dallas Morning Newsthat the Kress committee was "a group of folks getting ready to take over the school system of this town."

The reform package had something for everyone, but its most novel feature was its accountability system. Principals, teachers, and parents were given more control over their campuses. In return, each school would be held accountable for student performance, based on the results of standardized tests after factoring in variables such as poverty. If test scores improved, schools could receive cash awards from $5,000 to $100,000. If test scores fell or remained flat, principals and teachers would be given more training and were ultimately at risk of being fired.

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