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DISD's Confederacy of Jerks

Carolyn Boyle, founder of the non-partisan Texas Parent PAC, believes parents can and should be a fund-raising force in school board election campaigns.

If Obama can be president, is it OK for white people to be assholes again?

And, of course, I don't mean it exactly the way it sounds. I'm worried about the Dallas school system. What I really mean is that it may be time for upwardly mobile middle-class and working-class people of all ethnicities in the city to step forward and fight the good fight for old-fashioned academic elitism again.

You know what I mean by elitism—courses like calculus. That old, snobby numbers game. Or Latin, the language of empire. How about literacy—by which I mean people who do read, as opposed to people who can.

Have we come far enough for restlessly ambitious parents to begin demanding excellence in the schools again and suffer whatever slings and arrows may come their way as a result?

I would hope that black parents will be assholes as well. And Latino parents. I would include Asian parents, but we all know that's not going to happen.

Obnoxious, pushy, child-worshipping, sidelines-screaming, over-competitive, wildly insecure but arrogant parents with rat-like determination to get what they want for their kids: How do we get those people back involved in an urban school district, as opposed to the goofy morons and bandits running the place into the grave today?

We can't afford to let the suburbs have all the pushy jerks. We need to lure some of them back. Otherwise, too few people will ever give a damn.

Let me make the first part of my case here with a simple number—627. That is the number of votes that swept Dallas school trustee Adam Medrano into office last May 10 in the district's only contested school board race. Medrano trounced his sole challenger, Pedro Alvarez, with 627 votes to Alvarez's 178.

Think about it. My son went to Woodrow Wilson High School. The published student population at Woodrow is 1,470. If every student at Woodrow voted, Medrano's tally wouldn't have been enough to get him elected prom queen. So instead he's a trustee over the whole district.

Please don't take this as a slur aimed at Medrano. At least he cares enough to go down there and give a big slice of his life to public service at school headquarters. It's not his fault the rest of us are such slouches.

I argued in a column last week (so I won't argue again) that the absence of parents and other citizens from the political process in the school district leaves DISD in the hands of two interest groups: 1) district staff, and 2) construction industry companies involved in school bond building campaigns.

Those two groups, the staff and the builders, have a right to be heard. But no decent pushy parent should be willing to leave the fate of his or her child in the hands of a coalition of bureaucrats and builders. Are you kidding? Better to send the kid down to the bus station with a few bucks for lunch and a comic book.

But don't do that. I have a better idea.

We do live in a democracy, after all. There is no reason why parents couldn't have an impact on school board elections and in that way exert a powerful influence on the schools. I wrote last week about Texas Parent PAC, a political action committee that has enjoyed remarkable success in state legislative races since its founding in 2005.

The non-partisan Parent PAC raises money which it puts into targeted legislative contests, endorsing and supporting Republican and Democratic candidates who support good schools. In several tightly contested races, up against opponents with huge financial support from the anti-public education ideologues, Parent PAC candidates have prevailed.

So why couldn't we do that here in school board races? Last week I spoke with Carolyn Boyle, founder and chair of Parent PAC, who explained to me that her group doesn't have the resources at this point to get involved in local school board races.

"But I do think we are modeling for people that parents can really get involved and create political action committees, and that should happen, really, at school board levels."

But somebody has to do it.

"The problem is, it takes someone stepping forward," Boyle said. "With Texas Parent PAC, that was me."

She thinks women are better candidates than men for this sort of thing. "People have commented to me that really the only people who could have done what Parent PAC has done were a bunch of PTA moms, because men would be too scared that it would flop, and they would lose face."

I concede there is no more implacable force in nature than mothers, but I do think fathers could serve at least in a subordinate role.

So why doesn't it happen here? I know from my own family's experience in the Dallas schools that there are pockets of parents clustered around a few favored schools who will make almost any sacrifice in time and effort for the sake of those schools. Why haven't those long-lost cadres of committed parents stepped forward from the gloom, especially at a time like this, to do something powerful and effective like form a political action committee to clean up DISD?

 

I have been talking to people about that, and I find there is a kind of shared urban mythology about this sort of thing, especially among white people in North Dallas and to a lesser extent in Lakewood and East Dallas. Their common story goes like this: Back in the early 1970s, a coalition of people formed a group called LEAD that fought the good fight for school improvement in Dallas. But along came court-ordered, single-member-district school board elections, and the whole thing devolved into chaos and race-baiting.

I happen to know some of that history because of a book I worked on some years ago, so I am aware that the real story is more complicated. LEAD was a white-dominated group that refused to endorse one of its own black members running for the school board, postal carrier Arthur Joe Fred, because the white members thought a black person running for office needed to be at least a doctor or a lawyer.

Do we even have to talk about what was wrong in that picture? Good, I didn't think we did.

I spoke last week with white and minority community members who are active in school issues. I asked them what would have to happen for parents to form a successful coalition around school excellence issues in today's climate.

Joyce Foreman, a former member of the DART board and a plaintiff in an ongoing civil rights suit against the district, said the first step would be to nip the racial/ethnic thing in the bud at the very beginning by establishing multi-ethnic leadership. But she offered a strong caveat. It can't be a case of white folks recruiting black and Latino people with whom they feel comfortable.

"You start with a diverse group," Foreman said. "And when I speak of diversity, I don't mean the go-along to get-along people. I am speaking of people who will have their opinions about what needs to happen in each community. That's the umbrella of what you do.

"If you look at what happens in Dallas," she said, "they always have a 'tri-ethnic' leadership over whatever. But a lot of times you get the passive people. That's not what we need. People need to be able to speak openly about their differences. That's how you find good people."

On the white side of the equation, I had a fascinating conversation with a woman who has been famously effective at influencing the East Dallas schools attended by her own sons. In that process, she forged a personal political partnership with a Latino parent and businessman who was also committed to the same schools.

"He and I have had some conversations with each other that were extremely politically incorrect," she said, "but that's how we have learned to trust each other."

What she and her Latino ally have in common is a belief that academic excellence is all about the top of the scale, not the bottom. They both had sons who occupied the top rungs of the academic ladder in DISD. They both believe that excellence happens at the top and pulls people up toward it, rather than pushing up from the bottom.

For 30 years an unquestioned article of faith at DISD headquarters has been that too much emphasis on excellence leads to an unhealthy form of elitism. By this formula, excellence equals elitism equals racism. That's why, for example, the Talented and Gifted program has always been a sort of abused sibling within the family of programs at DISD.

This idea didn't come out of the blue. It was the product of an era in the city's history when it may have been appropriate. But that was long ago, in a distant place and time.

The construction interests, meanwhile, will bend to whatever element on the board they think will keep their bond money flowing. Their own kids are all in the Park Cities or private school. What do they care? Fighting for excellent and exceptional programs within DISD is a good way to get yourself hated, not at all a smart way to get building contracts. So of course you can't look to those interests for that kind of leadership.

What Dallas needs is a lot of very demanding parents, people who are smart enough and mean enough to push past the bureaucracy, people whose interests are less compromised by money than the construction interests, with thick enough skins to be able to stand each other. And I know you will know what I mean when I say that, of all those qualities, the last one will be the most difficult to come by.

 

White people have to be jerks. Black people have to be jerks. Latinos have to be jerks. Everybody has to be able to get mad at everybody. And everybody has to get over it and join together to fight for educational excellence.

I know there are people out there in the community who would fill this bill. I have their phone numbers. But it's up to them. One of them must step forward, as Carolyn Boyle said, and be the one to make it happen.

When we can build a parent-based coalition capable of raising money and using that money to win seats on the school board, we will enter a whole new chapter in the history of the City of Dallas. Why isn't this the time? What more could it take than what's going on now? If not now, when?


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