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Liberals Aren't Truly Opposed to Merit Pay for Teachers. They Just Don't Know What It Is.

I always feel better after I talk to Larry James. I was worried. Now I'm not.

James, president and CEO of CitySquare, the city's biggest and most comprehensive private anti-poverty organization, had an op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News yesterday, one of those things about who to hire for the new city manager. I keep waiting for them to ask me.

Mine would only be nine words long: someone not totally in the pocket of Yellow Cab. But, you know, then somebody's going to say, "Oh, sure, Schutze, and where do you suppose we would find anybody like that?" And I would have to say, "No idea."

Where were we? Oh, Larry James. He's one of the city's smartest true liberals, a rare combination of practical political savvy, business know-how and morally inspired idealism. So I was worried.

He said in his essay that a new city manager for Dallas must be someone capable of "engaging public education in Dallas as a key determinant for long-term economic revitalization." I believe that, too. But my experience over the last year has been that many of my liberal friends who say that kind of stuff don't really believe it. That is, they say they believe until they get to the point where we have to talk about how.

Engaging public education? Are we not knee-deep already in a pretty concerted effort to do just that in the Dallas public school system? A school superintendent who is all about reform just completed a year in which he and his team achieved all of their important objectives on the road to meaningful change. But at what harrowing cost?

For bringing the city's school system several ticks down the road to real reform, Mike Miles' reward has been to barely avoid getting Michelle Rhee'd right out of town, being stripped of lucrative pay bonuses and put on probation by the school board like a kid in the corner wearing a dunce cap. I guess if he had actually failed to accomplish one of his objectives, they would have taken him out back and shot him.

The battle is this tough in large part because my fellow liberals, marching to the siren song of the teachers unions, have bought the line that the reforms Miles is seeking are part of a cynical plot by corporate conservatives to take over the public school system for their own benefit. (My challenge remains: a gold star for the first person who can tell me what possible benefit corporate conservatives could achieve by taking over a major urban public school system in this country. Are they doing it just for fun?)

All of this is about to come to a very fine point when Miles moves toward the true centerpiece of school reform -- the dismantling of the seniority-based pay system and ironclad teacher tenure in favor of merit pay, not to mention the 12 percent of the teachers at the bottom of the effectiveness scale getting fired. There's your liberal sticking point.

I absolutely get why it sticks. It sticks like hell for me, too. It sounds so management. So corporate conservative. I mean, I hope this isn't libelous, but sometimes I hear people talking about merit pay and it sounds ... Republican!

It no longer sounds Republican when you hear it explained. The system Miles is moving toward would incorporate an entire machinery of measurements and observations to take into account the external factors that influence student performance, very much including poverty, so that teachers are not held responsible for things for which they are not responsible. But the new system would assume that there is a way to find those things for which an individual teacher is, indeed, responsible.

But that's where my liberal friends go in the tank. A lot of them say, "Oh, we have to do something about education," but when the rubber meets the road on teacher pay they throw up their hands and say, "You know what, let's cure poverty instead."

I always say, "Sure, but can we do world peace first?"

So I asked James. What about merit pay? At first he worried me. He said he saw poverty as an enormously powerful influence on student achievement, so powerful that he didn't see a way to step around it. "We need to reform the economy and create a situation in which people can thrive and not just eke out an existence."

He asked me how it can be fair to measure kids by test scores when their lives away from school are so dramatically different. All good points. But I said I believe the system the superintendent is devising will take all of these very points to heart and incorporate them in whatever is the final metric.

James said he would have to seriously weigh something like that. "If there is a better mousetrap that does have equity in it, then, yes." Then he said, "I'm pro-union, but I'm not pro everything that every union wants."

That means, I think, that James can be sold, but he will have to be sold. Like the best of liberals, he's a show-me guy. That is significant. Much of public resistance to merit pay for teachers is based on a lack of knowledge of how it would work and a blind acceptance of the simplistic line coming from the unions. Tell you what. You get a guy like Larry James to really sign off on it, you just won yourself a very important ally.


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