Saturday's District 2 Runoff Is a Roll of the Dice on School Reform

On the map, District 2 for the Dallas school board looks like a mini-Texas with a big white hole in the center, which, in a sense, it is. Right at the heart of the city, District 2 swings up from East Dallas, takes in Preston Hollow and runs over to Love Field. The big white hole in the middle is the Park Cities, where all the rich white people ran after school busing.

District 2 is where people stayed. It spans a fairly incredible spectrum of rich, poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian and other, as well as a pretty good mix of people with no kids, kids in public school, kids in private school and kids in reform school.

If people anywhere in the city were ever going to begin figuring out the complicated puzzles and high hurdles of public school reform, District 2 was always a good place to start. Fitting, then, that District 2 was the part of the city that produced school board member Mike Morath, one of the intellectual leaders of school reform in Dallas, now absent from the seat because he has been elevated to Texas commissioner of education.

But the other thing to know about District 2 is that nothing is easy there, which brings us to the runoff election for the District 2 seat this coming Saturday. I know every time somebody wants to get you excited about an election they tell you it’s a battle for the soul of whatever and a fight for the beating heart of something or other, so I won’t do that. But it is.

And the thing is, there are no black hats or white hats in this thing, no villains or heroes. Two smart, good people face each other Saturday, each with the best of intentions. The problem is, in the effort to save our schools and save our city in the process, good intentions don’t get it. Not now. Good intentions were three chapters ago.

We had good intentions, and that was good. Chapter Two, we had some good ideas, and that was better. But then there was that terrible, tough and wonderful Chapter Three during the regime of former Superintendent Mike Miles, when we had actual action. We did stuff. Tried things.

Some of the things we tried crashed and burned, but some were stunning victories, which I suspect has something to do with Morath being in Austin right now.

Miles, you remember. He was kind of the General George S. Patton of school reform. Patton, you may recall, was damned well going to take Sicily in World War II, no matter what. He was censured for slapping around two of his own soldiers — which was not right — but he did take Sicily.

So, yeah, Miles. Blood, sweat and tears were shed. But from those difficult times emerged a set of reforms that put Dallas on track to become a national leader in public school reform, most notable of which was one of the nation’s most comprehensive and carefully considered merit pay systems for teachers.

Don’t tell me education kids is  all up to parents. Sure it is. But what do you do when the parents flunk? How do you turn those kids around?

We can’t choose parents.The window, the shot, the opportunity to make a difference is all about the teachers.

Miles was successful in persuading a fractious school board that nothing can be done for the students unless something can be done for and about the teachers — elevating the good ones, training the middle ranks, getting rid of those who really can’t do the job. The key, he said, was fairness and consistency. You had to have a system.

A refrain among the detractors of merit pay for teachers is that the system adopted under Miles is “top-down.” But think about it. We have 10,000 teachers in Dallas teaching 160,000 kids, 144,000 of them by law deemed “economically disadvantaged.” In what institution of this size could the system be bottom-up? 

And, yes, hammering out this system was a bloody business, with angry opposition from the teachers unions, who quite correctly saw it as a frontal assault on the old seniority pay system. We had seniority pay for all those years, and what did it get us?
Merit pay also was opposed by an important element of the city’s older black leadership, who saw it as an assault on the old court-ordered school regime. As a legacy of federal desegregation orders, leaders in the black community basically had hiring and firing authority over principals and faculty in schools in their own areas, with the same outcome mentioned above.

The miracle, really, was that in spite of all of that very committed and active opposition, Miles was able to craft a merit pay system and get it passed by the school board. One of the most important elements, a big selling point in getting the board to adopt merit pay, was the extensive use of teachers as both authors and critics of the system.

Again and again, Miles and his people went to committees of teachers and asked them what they thought an effective teacher evaluation system would look like. The end-product was a complicated, carefully balanced system employing a variety of methods, metrics and criteria. Everyone involved seems to agree it still needs tinkering, but starting again from scratch would be almost unthinkable waste of time, political capital and momentum.

Among the opponents to merit pay were some whom I have not mentioned yet but who were the most personally troubling for me, mainly because they seemed to be everybody I might conceivably run into at lunch in East Dallas. Opposition to merit pay, to Miles and to school reform in general ran strong in the ethnic tribe I know best, the white middle class parents whose kids were at Stonewall Jackson and Lakewood Elementary Schools, Woodrow Wilson High School (my son’s alma mater) and other fine East Dallas academies.

That group bothers me the most because I get them best. I live among them. We’re talking about people who stayed in the public school system and made it work by taking over their own schools. They are very formidable folk, capable of chasing a school district executive all the way back down Ross Avenue to school district headquarters from which he or she might never again emerge by the front door.

Those are the people, mainly, who are the ardent backers of Mita Havlick, one of the two candidates facing each other in a shootout Saturday. Havlick, a former information technology executive, was one of a pair left standing standing after a four-way general election May 7. In that vote, businessman Dustin Marshall took 43 percent of the 6,285 ballots cast. Havlick defeated third-place hopeful Suzanne Smith, a consultant, by 47 votes.

I have to admit, I thought the general election was so close between Smith and Marshall — and both would have made such excellent trustees — that I was sort of sitting it out with my fingers crossed and my mouth shut. Havlick slipped up on me, and one consequence of that is that I have done a poor job getting to know her.

She and spoke yesterday, and we discussed “TEI,” the acronym for the merit pay system left behind by Miles. She’s very bright, but she reminds me eerily of a former school board member whose name still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

Elizabeth Jones, who represented District 1, also was very bright. Like Havlick, Jones had an uncanny confidence that her experience in the business world more than qualified her to solve all problems and meet all challenges in public education, almost without reference to anything or anyone preceding her.

Havlick insisted that she is not opposed to teacher evaluations and suggested that The Dallas Morning News had unfairly painted her as an opponent of TEI. But when I asked her what she proposed to replace TEI or what tweaks she had in mind, I heard from her all the old buzz-words and dog whistles that I know all too well from some (not all) of the Lakewood/Woodrow crowd.

Too top-down. Too much testing. One size fits all. She said something about preferring “360-degree peer reviews” that she learned in the IT business, which made me think of circular firing squads, which I am sure she did not mean..

But, listen. She’s smart. She’s motivated. She’s good people. Some of that bluster is probably just campaign talk.

Here’s the thing, though. Dustin Marshall, her opponent, is the real deal where school reform is concerned. He has been in the trenches as an education reform advocate for several years now. He knows exactly how we got to this point and how terrible it would be to fall back.

The outcome of the general election was not especially good for school reform. We’ll have to see how things shake out, but right now the board seems evenly split. If this last seat falls to someone who is even wobbly, then the reform effort may falter, and one hates to imagine what that could mean for the city.

I told you, I am not going to put a white hat on Marshall and a black hat on Havlick. It’s not like that. I’m just saying that Marshall has proved his commitment to school reform with hard selfless work over a period of years, and Havlick sounds wobbly. I don’t think we can afford wobbly.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze