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

"For all intents and purposes, Sandy Kress represents Sandy Kress," says Jay Levin, chief lobbyist for the Texas State Teachers Association. "There are people who attach a good deal of credibility to his thinking, and that is what gets him to the table."

In Austin, Kress had found himself as a political operative, a lobbyist, and a behind-the-scenes guy who would wow you with his grasp of the issues and overwhelm you with his indefatigable energy. Not being an elected official, he had no hostile constituencies to answer to. He didn't have to worry about how the press would interpret his actions or feign attention for every voter with a gripe about the way he was doing his job. He could just be Sandy Kress.

In July 1999, Kress didn't hesitate when Margaret La Montagne, the governor's senior education staffer, asked him to join the presidential campaign as one of Bush's advisors on education policy. "Sandy is a Johnny-One-Note on accountability," La Montagne says. "He's a true believer, a zealot. What better person to help the governor translate Republican views on accountability to a national agenda."

Former DISD trustee Yvonne Ewell recommended that Kress chair a committee to reform the DISD. It was a recommendation that she would regret.
Former DISD trustee Yvonne Ewell recommended that Kress chair a committee to reform the DISD. It was a recommendation that she would regret.
Kathlyn Gilliam, who served on the DISD board with Kress, thought Kress' accountability system was "a farce" he used for his own aggrandizement.
Martin Menocal
Kathlyn Gilliam, who served on the DISD board with Kress, thought Kress' accountability system was "a farce" he used for his own aggrandizement.

Kress was among those who helped design Bush's national education agenda, which included robust accountability, character education, and school vouchers.

The campaign has used Kress as its chief accountability booster: He has gone to several primary states to tell the "Texas story" on education. Countless magazine and newspaper articles have quoted him on the subject, and, of course, he went to the Democratic convention to "set the record straight."

That record boasts huge statewide gains on TAAS tests ever since the accountability system was implemented. It shows a remarkable narrowing of the learning gap between Anglos and minorities, at least on TAAS tests. Though others attribute the state's success to smaller class size, equalized spending among districts, and more preschool programs, Kress and the rest of the Republican campaign choose to celebrate Texas accountability.

Recently, however, a few studies have cast doubts on the whole notion of "the Texas miracle," claiming it is little more than a politically inspired myth. "The whips and chains of accountability in Texas have set up a system where, in order to protect one's own interest, schools are harming kids rather than educating them," says Walt Haney, an education professor at Boston College who wrote a paper titled The Myth of the Texas Miracle in Education. The pressure to "show up well" on the TAAS test, says Haney, has led to a dramatic increase in the number of students classified as "special ed" as well as the number of kids encouraged to drop out of school and enter GED programs--most of them minorities. By exempting those at the bottom from testing, schools are inflating their results.

"Politicians see testing as a wonderful gimmick," Haney says. "Any time you implement a new testing program, the results are terrible. But over 4-5 years, the scores go up as teachers learn the tricks of the test. That gives politicians something to crow about."

The real indicators of learning--SAT scores, graduation rates, college acceptance rates--are going down in Texas, says Dr. Linda McNeil, an education professor at Rice University who co-wrote a report critical of the Texas test for Harvard University's Civil Rights Project.

Kress has heard of Haney and McNeil and bristles at their criticisms. "This stuff drives me crazy...If people want to prove that the TAAS system isn't perfect, that's an easy case. There are abuses, but it's the best damn system in the country." Kress apologizes for his intensity. "This is all I do, this is my passion. This has been my life for 10 years, and it means more to me and my soul than anything other than my family."

Perhaps he's so passionate about the numbers because he sees them as his redemption. Rising scores among black and Hispanic students wash away the stain of alleged racism that muddied his reputation in Dallas. To him, these results are hard evidence that he was looking out for the interests of minority kids all along.

"Time has vindicated Sandy Kress," La Montagne says. Across the state, black and Hispanic education leaders as well as teachers unions now embrace his test-driven accountability system, she says. Democrats have also joined the debate: Al Gore has been forced to come up with his own accountability plan. "Being against accountability," La Montagne says, "is like being against motherhood and baseball."

So what does the future of accountability mean to the future of Sandy Kress? He seems finished as a new Democrat; old friends such as former Dallas Democratic County chairman Ken Molberg consider him a "political whore." Does lifelong Democrat Kress see himself in Washington as a domestic policy advisor to a Republican president?

"Definitely not," he says. But if Bush plans some bold 100-day initiative and asks Kress to lobby Congress to get his baby some national exposure, you can bet Kress the political operative will be knocking on doors and pressing flesh.

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