By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Then there's what Kress himself says about leaving: It was time to move on. He had lost interest in electoral politics, but his civic and lobbying work with education reform kept him busy with the Legislature. His wife's family lived in Austin, and when a position opened in the Austin branch of his law firm in 1997, he grabbed it.
But the seeds of his departure were planted as early as 1992, when Kress was running for school board. Worried there might be a big Republican turnout because of a controversial issue equalizing funding between rich and poor school districts, Kress figured he had better shore up support from some of his Republican business friends. One recommended that he meet with George W. Bush, then the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers.
At Bush's office in Preston Center, Kress began to tell him about his education reforms. Despite their partisan differences, Bush sent out a letter of support for Kress.
That same year, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Kress' longtime friend, appointed him to the Education and Economic Policy Center, a state agency charged by the Legislature to do a statewide accountability study for the public school system. The chair of the EEPC, Houston businessman Charles Miller, a Republican, in turn selected Kress to chair its accountability task force. Kress' staunchest supporters of his educational reforms in Dallas were Republican establishment types, so he had no trouble working with Republicans in the statewide arena.
"I made a calculated bet on Sandy, and it turned out to be one of the smartest things I ever did," says Miller, now a Bush appointee to the UT Board of Regents. "No statewide accountability system existed anywhere. We put together significant new ideas that no one had done before."
The Texas accountability plan differed from its Dallas counterpart by measuring student performance based solely on a single standardized test, without factoring in such variables as family background. It called for annual TAAS testing--reading, writing, and math--from grades 3-8 and then again at grade 10. High school students had to pass the test to graduate. Scores would result in schools being rated from exemplary to low-performing. Bad scores could lead to low teacher evaluations, firings, even school closures. Good results could lead to cash rewards. Test scores would be broken down based on race, parental income, and gender so problem areas could be targeted and attacked.
Kress thought he had Gov. Ann Richards' support for the task force's proposals, but when he appeared in front of a hostile House Education Committee in 1993, he says the governor's staffers abandoned him. Teachers and their powerful unions were outraged by the proposals: How does accountability measure socioeconomic factors that make teaching some students more difficult, if not impossible? Aren't we dumbing down education by asking only for a minimum level of performance? What if the test is unfair and teachers are fired?
When Kress reported to Bullock that the accountability plan was dead on arrival, Bullock told him, "It's going to pass." It did. Bullock piggybacked a watered-down version of the accountability plan onto school finance legislation and presented both as an all-or-nothing deal to the governor.
After the '93 session ended, Kress returned to Bush's office in Dallas, this time at Bush's invitation. Bush said he had decided to run for governor against Richards, and he wanted to understand the work of the task force. "He grilled me with questions for over an hour," Kress recalls. "Taking copious notes the whole time." Kress says he was worried that Bush wanted his support in the campaign, and he reminded Bush that he was a Democrat.
At least he was then.
In the campaign, Bush pressed accountability hard, promising voters he wouldn't tamper with the new system. Just a week after he became governor in January 1995, he informed Commissioner of Education Skip Meno (who had resisted accountability, Kress says) that he would not reappoint him to another term. Kress headed a short list of possible replacements, but Republican state Sen. John Leedom from Dallas blackballed him for partisan reasons.
Nevertheless, Bush wanted Kress involved in his administration and asked him to consult with the Governor's Business Council (GBC), a group of 100 chief executive officers from across the state that gave policy advice to the governor. Charles Miller chaired the GBC's education committee, which advised the governor on revamping the state's education code for the '95 legislative session. Democrat Bullock had also appointed Miller and Kress to a special task force charged with recommending a major overhaul of the education code to the Legislature. Among other things, those changes gave us charter schools, more local control for campuses, more authority for teachers to discipline students, and a stronger accountability system.
During the next two legislative sessions, Kress lobbied for the governor's literacy initiative (passed in 1997) and a controversial bill eliminating social promotions (passed in 1999). He became a paid consultant for the GBC, a lobbyist for Texans for Education, a board member of the Texas Business and Education Coalition. Whatever business backing he had lacked locally, he found on a statewide level. Kress wore so many educational hats, it was virtually impossible to know who he was representing and for what reason.