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Not All DISD Reformers Are Elitist, Public Ed-hating Zombies

DISD's Miguel Solis will have plenty of shots to take as school reform rolls on.
DISD's Miguel Solis will have plenty of shots to take as school reform rolls on.
Dylan Hollingsworth

In the smoke, din, blinding flashes, screams, roars, flying body parts, weird music and scarily bad odors blasting out from Mayor Mike Rawlings' enormously maladroit public school takeover campaign, there has been a silver lining.

It is a very thin silver lining, kind of like a kitten that survives an earthquake. But it's silver. And it's a lining.

For the last year or so, the detractors of school reform in Dallas have used one broad brush to paint anybody and everybody interested in changing the way the Dallas public school system operates. They are all sworn enemies of public schools, according to this accusation, and everything they do is subterfuge masking an agenda to kill public education.

So my silver lining — admittedly a modest one — is this: The sheer ham-fistedness of the mayor's "home rule" campaign to change how DISD is governed has exposed a split within the reformers' ranks. Yes, some of the people championing change may indeed harbor dreams of a radical takedown of public education itself. But some do not. Some truly believe in public schools and hope to fix them from within.

That's it, you ask? That's my silver lining? OK, I told you already, it's a very thin silver lining. But think about it. An odd-bedfellows coalition of black elected officials and the teachers unions have been arguing that so-called school reform is little more than a Trojan horse campaign to kill public schools in favor of private charter schools.

Last year when the anti-reform forces were trying to get Superintendent Mike Miles fired, all the pro-reformers, myself included, were saying that the rich elitist Trojan horse stuff was paranoia, some of it stirred cynically by the unions. So now along comes the mayor with a scary movie called Save Our Public Schools, in which rich elitist zombies close a ring around the children chanting, "Die, public schools, die!" It's almost as if the enemies of reform wrote the script.

But do take note, please. Miles and newly elected school board member Miguel Solis are not in that movie. That counts. For this next lesson, please take out your magnifying glasses.

Last week Miles appeared before the editorial board of The Dallas Morning News — the editors and writers who put out the editorial page and after that meeting metro page columnist James Ragland quoted him as having told the board that many of the mayor's apparent goals are already being accomplished under the existing framework of governance for the schools. Ragland quoted him saying of the mayor's effort, "I'm not going to be for it or against it."

You might wonder, if Miles doesn't believe in the mayor's effort, why doesn't he just come out against it? Miles can't just kick Rawlings in the teeth. He owes him. A lot. When the business community was initially tepid in its support of Miles' reform efforts, Rawlings got his back big-time. Last year when the anti-reform forces were maneuvering to get Miles fired, Rawlings made a stirring defense of him, which was then followed by reinforcing statements from the Dallas Citizens Council and the Dallas Regional Chamber. Given what Miles owes Rawlings, his decision last week to back off even one quarter inch from full endorsement of the mayor's takeover campaign was truly significant.

I don't call Miles much anymore, because I was informed the board had imposed a special "Jim Schutze Rule" on him. Every time he talks to me for any reason, he has to inform the board. So I'm saving up my phone call for when I call him to ask if it's true the entire board has been exposed to tuberculosis. But I can call Miguel Solis whenever I feel like it.

You remember Solis. Last November, at age 27, Solis won election to the school board by defeating an anti-reform candidate strongly supported by the teachers unions and by Don Williams, the Rumpelstiltskin of Santa Fe, a wealthy retired real estate magnate who for reasons that may forever elude rational discovery harbors a mortal grudge against Miles.

The mayor's takeover plan for the school system is proposed under an arcane never-before-invoked state law recently unearthed by political spelunkers. I call it the House-that-Jack-Built Law: A petition drive is supposed to trigger creation of a special commission whose report is supposed to trigger a review by the Texas Commissioner of Education whose ruling is supposed to trigger a special election that is supposed to fix everything.

Election about what? Ah, well, that's not being said. Yet. It will be an election about something or other, but don't be nosey. Yeah, well, that's how this whole thing has been handled so far, like a benefit set up by a couple of Park Cities Tinkerbelles.

Last week I was out of town on vacation, but I did see Scott Goldstein's story in the Morning News about an event put on by the mayor's group at the Preston Royal Library. According to what I read, they held the meeting in a hot room that was way too small, refused to take any questions not written down in advance and, when asked who was bankrolling their effort, said, "It's the privilege of the donors to remain anonymous."

 

Isn't that special? I'm surprised nobody got hit on the schnozz with a cucumber sandwich.

In fact the execution of home rule has been so clumsy that it's almost impossible to see the idea itself through the smoke and din around it. The original concept came from school board member Mike Morath, who is certainly one of the smartest and most thoughtful school board members in recent memory, passionately committed to turning out graduates who can read, write and do math.

Last Sunday David Flick had a great interview in the Morning News with John Arnold, the former Enron billionaire in Houston who has been one of the few named funders of the Dallas effort. Arnold made what I thought was an entirely valid point, that the people who oppose school reform and defend the status quo will always try to frame school issues on an entirely personal and ad hominem basis. That's because the teachers unions don't want to have to march around under a banner that says, "Teachers Against Merit," and black elected officials don't want a banner that says, "Jobs Before Children." So they're always going to use a banner instead that says, "Us Against the Bad Guys."

The problem with the home-rule effort is that it walked right into that accusation, even inspiring Don Williams up in Santa Fe to call out some of his paid academic trolls, who ginned up an instant "brief" for him painting home rule as some kind of Illuminati plot to steal all the children. A guy I know who follows all of this very closely and astutely called me up when he saw the Williams back-from-the-crypt story and said, "Hey, wait a minute, did Rawlings just manage to put Don Williams and Mike Miles together against him?"

But I don't think so. What the whole thing has really demonstrated is that the so-called "reform movement" is really much more diverse than we may have thought previously. There may be no Trojan horse, but there do seem to be some Trojan ponies out there who really do not believe in public education. But there also are other people inside the effort and inside public schools who do believe in public education and are willing to take heat for their beliefs, even from their supposed allies.

I predicted earlier this week that the home-rule effort may go on hiatus until 2016. But if that does not happen, the person who will sit in the true cross-hairs will be Solis, the new young board member. State law calls for the school board to set up a commission whose job will be to propose some new system of governance for the school system. The same law says: "The membership of the charter commission must reflect the racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic diversity of the district."

Lots of folks around town have been trying to slice and dice that requirement different ways, but the general consensus is that, one way or another, the commission will have to be about 70 percent Latino. And custom among elected officials in Dallas has always been that each ethnicity picks its own people.

Solis is the only Latino on the school board. He's brand-new. He still looks like a kid to me, but then so does George Clooney.

I called him up last week to ask how he thinks that's going to go down. What happens when he tells the five white and three black board members, "Sorry, but I'll be doing most of the picking here."

First, he made one thing clear. He said, "I have not endorsed the home-rule effort. People ask me, 'Are you getting behind the thing? Are you part of the process? Are you going to be standing up and going out and trying to get people to support it?' The answer is no."

But when I asked him if the home-rule effort hadn't made things awfully tough for him and for Miles, he politely declined to agree.

"We as elected officials and leaders in the community, we are not provided with an opportunity to pick when we want to talk about specific things. When a conversation comes up, I think the onus rests on us as leaders to step up, to engage in the conversation and hopefully to be able to provide leadership and thoughtfulness to the conversation.

"I do tend to be a fan of democracy," he said. "You kind of have to be a fan of democracy if you intend on being a school board member."

 

OK, that's silver, isn't it? A little bit silver? Silverish? C'mon.


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