The Resurrection of Sandy Kress
His voice sounds so familiar--deep, resonant, dweebishly articulate--as he defends George W. Bush in front of a swarm of stinging reporters. His face is also hard to forget, though the years have wrinkled his brow and doubled his chin. He looks rounder in the middle, yet at 52, former Dallas school board President Sandy Kress is still a powerful presence, exuding the understated arrogance that comes with believing you have everyone beaten on the facts. Always.
His likeness rarely intrudes on the public consciousness--at least not in Dallas. In 1997, he moved to Austin, disappointed, disheartened, some even say disgraced, after his racially charged tenure on the school board. But that doesn't stop him from taking on the media in a Republican Party campaign office right across the street from the Democratic National Convention. Republican presidential nominee George W. Bush has sent Kress and the so-called Texas Truth Squad--Democrats all--to Los Angeles in August to get downright aggressive with members of the press who might mistake the rhetoric coming out of the convention as something approaching truth.
Why would Kress, a longtime Democrat, help stage a sideshow for the Republican Party? He was a former Dallas County Democratic Party chairman, a Democratic congressional candidate, a member of the Democratic Leadership Council. Yet he comes to Hollywood as the anti-Gore, playing stand-up guy for the guv and spinning the "Texas story" on education.
On the campaign trail, Bush touts the success of the state's accountability system--"the Texas miracle"--which tests kids regularly and holds schools and teachers responsible for the results. To defend the Texas system against critics who claim that it is more myth than miracle, Bush often relies on Kress, one of his informal campaign advisors.
Education reform is the reason Bush sent Kress to Los Angeles. Kress owns the issue in Texas. He has lobbied for it, fought for it, and in Dallas, committed political suicide over it. Kress has become the chief campaign cheerleader for this state's accountability system, and for good reason: As Dallas school board president, he practically gave birth to the idea. And what a painful delivery it was.
The district's accountability reforms weren't just a passion for a lifelong politico turned über-policy wonk. For him, they were a holy crusade to help minority children--and all the justification he needed to ride roughshod over anyone who stood in his way. Unfortunately, those people generally were black.
African-Americans were already predisposed to see Kress as the latest white guy who was going to tell black people how to educate their kids. Because he excluded from the DISD power structure those who opposed him, blacks viewed him with just as much apprehension as they did his reforms. That Kress was a sophisticated political operative didn't help his standing when he engaged in a style of hardball politics never before experienced by the DISD board. He viewed any challenge to his reforms as a challenge to him personally. His blind conviction to do what he believed was the right thing for all kids--blacks, Latinos, Anglos--helped set the stage for one of the most racially divisive periods in the history of DISD.
Even after he moved his law practice to Austin, he didn't let go of the accountability issue. Kress became a lobbyist for statewide business interests that found a real-world simplicity in a system that motivates principals and teachers to educate by giving cash rewards to schools where students performed well on standardized tests, and punishing schools that performed poorly. When former Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock signed onto the plan in 1993, and Gov. Bush committed himself to it again in 1995, accountability gained an unshakable foothold in Texas.
That Kress could succeed statewide and beyond when he was so tarnished by his DISD tenure is as much a testament to his intellectual acumen as his overarching ambition.
In the presidential campaign, accountability remains a political buzzword, though it has different meanings depending on which party is espousing it. But if George W. Bush is elected president, robust accountability may well become the bedrock of federal education policy. Whether about education or politics, kids or candidates, winning or losing, accountability has arrived.
And in its wake, so has Sandy Kress.
If Sandy Kress could live his life over again, he might live it as a Republican. It was his life's ambition to be involved in public service, and if he couldn't affect policy as a Democrat, then why not try the other side?
Certainly his political leanings have been to the right of center ever since 1980, when he left the Carter administration and returned to Dallas to join the downtown law firm of Johnson & Swanson. John Johnson, the firm's founder, was a Republican and very much a power player in local politics. Dallas had always been run by a business elite that came to the table, cut their deals, and then let their lawyers draw up the papers to make it all legal. Johnson, who represented friend and oil man Ray Hunt, was one of the first lawyers invited to the table.
Though they were of different political persuasions, Kress proved to be a good hire for Johnson, who headed a small breakfast club that endorsed candidates in nonpartisan city and school board elections. Former school trustee and city council member Jerry Bartos was a recipient of their beneficence and met weekly with Kress, Johnson, and other business leaders to discuss issues coming before the school board.
"Kress was such an enigma," Bartos recalls. "I liked him, but he was unusual--a progressive Democrat who was all tied in with the business community."
Kress had been raised in a Dallas family that considered liberal politics one of the basic food groups. His mother, Pauline, a Yellow Dog Democrat and community activist, would schlep young Sandy with her to do campaign grunt work.
Off to college in 1967, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, which became the epicenter of countercultural rage. But Kress was no hellion, and he did what any good politico might do: He organized a political party, got himself elected campus vice president, and protested the war by trying to lobby Congress through conventional political means.
As a law student at the University of Texas, Kress was elected student body president, mobilizing a new wave of student activism in Austin politics. "We became a pretty serious political force," recalls Kress, whose grassroots student campaigns helped elect Sarah Weddington and Gonzalo Barrientos to the statehouse and Bob Bullock to the Comptroller's Office.
Austin, however, couldn't contain Kress' political ambitions. After taking the Texas Bar exam, he joined a law firm in Washington, D.C., and later became an advance man for Democratic vice-presidential nominee Walter Mondale in 1976.
Payoff for his efforts came in the form of a job in the Carter administration--deputy to the assistant secretary of legislative affairs in the Treasury Department. For the next three years, he would lobby Congress on behalf of Treasury.
After Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, Kress began to reinvent himself as a new Democrat, one who sought to push his party more to the right, creating a more conservative agenda designed to appeal to the broad middle of the party.
In 1986, Kress decided to put his philosophy to the test and ran for Dallas County Democratic Party chairman. He faced stiff opposition from old party bosses such as Bob Greenberg, who believed Kress was too closely aligned with the Republican business establishment to be its outspoken critic. But Kress came on strong from the beginning, his aggressive campaign style assuring him a safe margin of victory.
During his four years as Democratic county chairman, Kress could do little to stem the Republican tide as Democrats lost nearly every county election. Yet he was a strong leader, an articulate spokesman, and in the process of raising the party's profile, he also raised his own.
Opportunity came for Kress in 1989 when U.S. Rep. John Bryant announced he was running for Texas attorney general. Kress didn't just throw his hat into the ring, he raised more money than any non-incumbent congressional candidate in the country. But by the filing deadline, Bryant had a change of heart, claiming that Texans needed him to remain in Washington.
"I was all dressed up with no place to go," Kress says. "But I wasn't going to run against an incumbent."
Kress says the reversal unsettled him, souring him on partisan politics. "I began to pray about what to do next, and it occurred to me that I was more interested in finding an issue that I could become possessed by." During a quiet weekend with his wife, he decided that issue was education.
Through his mother and Democratic politics, Kress knew school board trustee Yvonne Ewell, one of three African-Americans on the DISD board in 1990. He arranged a meeting at her house, where Kress told Ewell that he was concerned that scores on standardized tests, particularly among minority children, had begun to plateau in recent years. Early gains attributable to court-ordered desegregation at the district were being lost. He knew the board was interested in passing a bond issue and argued that a bond package would be more sellable to voters and the business community if it included reforming what was going on in the classrooms.
She would regret it.
Even before the Committee on Educational Excellence (which became known as the Kress Commission) issued its final report in June 1991, Kress became embroiled in controversy. Worried that school trustees would just put his reform plans on some dusty shelf, Kress began playing hardball: Using business community money to mail out fliers, he invited taxpayers to town hall meetings to gather comments and support for his reforms.
The fliers were attacked by school board members, particularly black trustee Kathlyn Gilliam, who told The Dallas Morning News that the Kress committee was "a group of folks getting ready to take over the school system of this town."
The reform package had something for everyone, but its most novel feature was its accountability system. Principals, teachers, and parents were given more control over their campuses. In return, each school would be held accountable for student performance, based on the results of standardized tests after factoring in variables such as poverty. If test scores improved, schools could receive cash awards from $5,000 to $100,000. If test scores fell or remained flat, principals and teachers would be given more training and were ultimately at risk of being fired.
It had never been done before. "The word accountability had been used loosely in the [Ross] Perot reforms of the mid-'80s, but ours was the first systemic deal," Kress says.
Kress believed that accountability would raise student scores and close the racial achievement gap. He believed it so zealously that he began to lobby the entire city with an extensive public-relations campaign--newspaper supplements, mailers, phone banks--a heavy-handed attempt to put pressure on school trustees to see things his way. That a committee appointed by the school board would circumvent the very board for which it was working seemed unprecedented. That a committee backed by the white establishment (despite its multiracial make-up) was trying to impose its will on a predominantly minority school district seemed racist to some.
"The blacks were opposed to it because it was a business community thing," says retired DISD board secretary Bob Johnston. "Historically with segregation, when the business community advocates something, it has not been good for blacks."
Trustee Gilliam led a group of black ministers to speak out against the Kress public-relations campaign, saying his "self-appointed vigilante group" was not only usurping the board's authority but also that of African-American Superintendent Marvin Edwards. With the business community on board and Hispanic leaders endorsing the reforms, Edwards refused to piss in the prevailing winds. He quelled any racist rumblings about the committee when he supported its work. After the school board met in September 1991, trustees had little choice: They approved the reforms by unanimous vote.
With victory, Kress became the Great White Hope of the business community; although black trustees believed the district wasn't ready to be free of federal intervention, the business community saw Kress as the one person who could get the city out from under the 1974 desegregation order. Touted for mayor, Kress instead announced that he would be a candidate for the school board. What better way to guarantee compliance with his reforms?
Kress thrashed a no-name opponent in 1992, garnering 90 percent of the vote, but joining the board wasn't enough. He soon became its driving force, the embodiment of its political will, as he forged an alliance between Hispanic and Anglo trustees--the notorious "Slam Dunk Gang"--to push his reforms. The term Slam Dunk Gang actually predated Kress, but under his tenure the term became more pejorative, a symbol of whites excluding blacks from the power structure.
Kress was an idea factory, always coming up with another plan or initiative when the one before it didn't seem to work. He pressed every advantage, pushed every button, his spirit as indomitable as his ambition. When he was on a mission, he politicked the hell out of an issue--and he was always on a mission.
"He came on the scene and took the board by storm," says former trustee Dan Peavy. "He was a master manipulator and had this way of getting people into the fold. I was in agreement with 100 percent of the things he had to say."
Black trustees didn't trust Kress, whose aggressive style left no room for discussion or compromise, at least not when he had the votes. They didn't trust whites who could still get their kind elected to the school board while fleeing the inner city and taking their kids with them. They didn't trust the noblesse oblige of a white establishment that seemed more interested in keeping its taxes low than minority test scores high.
What they did trust was the desegregation order that required a better racial balance in the teaching force, the Townview supermagnet high school in Oak Cliff, and a large expenditure of resources for learning centers and instruction in the black community. That Kress' accountability system and the court's desegregation order sought to do the same thing--raise test scores and close the racial achievement gap--made no difference.
"It [accountability] was just a farce Mr. Kress was trying to push off on the community," says former trustee Gilliam. "It was ill-conceived and just some kind of personal aggrandizement effort on his part."
Kress says he never could understand the resistance blacks had to his reforms. "I was foggy about it then, and I am foggy about it now."
Even after he became board president in 1994 after ousting Rene Castilla, even after all his reforms were implemented by the board, Kress still couldn't see what others thought was obvious.
"When you said accountability to a white audience, it meant getting rid of a principal or teacher who couldn't perform," says former board secretary Johnston. "When you said it to an African-American audience, it was like a code word for 'Let's get rid of blacks and replace them with whites.'"
Black teachers worried about job security. Quietly, some sought protection, Johnson says, and put pressure on political leaders such as former Dallas NAACP President Lee Alcorn, whose rhetoric at board meetings grew increasingly hostile. At the same time, black trustees were feeling disenfranchised because they were losing every important vote.
"Kress ran the thing under the table," Peavy says. "We discussed all the issues in private, to the exclusion of the blacks. But it wasn't a deal to exclude anybody, really. It was an inclusion of those who would vote our way."
Rene Castilla voted the way of the Slam Dunk Gang, but he grew increasingly critical of Kress as he saw him losing political capital in the black community. "Sandy created a perception that he wasn't interested in what the black community wanted," Castilla says. "Because he was so thin-skinned, he allowed himself to be goaded by Kathlyn Gilliam, and she had enough tentacles in the black community to distort his image any way she wanted."
Kress would grow angry and defensive, says Castilla, and rather than listen to black concerns and build a consensus around his reforms by finding common ground, he chose to ignore the blacks who came before the board and slam-dunked their leaders.
"There was so much of himself wrapped up in the issue. He was so ambitious for it," Castilla says. "His ambition overshadowed the goal that he set, and he took it personally when he shouldn't have."
It wasn't as though the fears of African-American trustees were groundless. Kress was part of a voting majority that slashed more than $15 million off the 1992 bond proposal for the Townview supermagnet. Kress wanted to limit money spent on learning centers--court-ordered schools created in 1984 to bring black children who had been bused to white schools back to their own neighborhoods. Kress was also accused of trying to limit the influence of black board members by opposing a committee structure that might curtail his own power.
As distasteful as Kress' reforms were to the black community, his brinkmanship caused just as much upheaval. Concerned with his legacy, he complained bitterly when negative news stories about DISD surfaced in the press. "Sandy had a tendency to go ballistic when someone disagreed with him," Johnston says. "That's one reason press relations went rapidly downhill." He "raised hell" with the editorial board at The Dallas Morning News, insisting on more favorable coverage for the district, but his lobbying efforts backfired.
"That pissed the press off pretty good," Peavy says. "The disdain for his tactics started the media scrutiny that has become so prevalent in the district today."
Even within his own Slam Dunk Gang, there was discord if a member began to act more independently than Kress wished. When Anglo trustee Ed Grant and Kress had a serious falling out, Kress fielded Linda McDowell to run against Grant, say Castilla and Peavy. She won. (McDowell could not be reached for comment; Grant says he believes that Kress sought to have him unseated.)
Despite the tension--racial and otherwise--Kress was unanimously elected in 1995 to a second term as president. No one would dare challenge him. His grip on the board, however, would suffer its first setback when slam-dunker Peavy was the subject of a news exposé that linked him to a possible insurance kickback scheme. A federal indictment soon followed. He would be exonerated eventually, but not before a tape recording of Peavy using racial slurs was anonymously sent to black board members Gilliam and Ewell.
On September 28, 1995, both trustees publicly read a transcript of the tape in which Peavy insults, maligns, or bashes blacks, gays, trustees, superintendents, and parents, among others. Although the tapes recorded hours of illegally intercepted phone calls, Peavy was smart enough to resign. On those tapes were recordings of conversations with Kress, Peavy would later tell the press.
Peavy's resignation wasn't enough to content many of the city's more vitriolic African-American leaders who, at an October 10, 1995, board meeting, insisted that Kress step down. At the very least, they argued, Kress had allowed good-ol'-boy Peavy to wax racist without condemning him.
Kress wouldn't resign, but if he could have foreseen the debacle over Townview on the near horizon, he might have reconsidered.
The district's Talented and Gifted Program (TAG) was being gutted at the new supermagnet, falling victim to the belief that within this monument to equality, TAG was a vestige of segregation, an elitist barrier that gave whites the best teachers, the best resources, the best education. TAG parents saw the program as a racially diverse testament to excellence in public education that selected children based on merit rather than quota.
Among the angry parents, frustrated trustees, and tiny New Black Panther Party, the threat of violence was real. Police escorts for trustees were common--as were anti-Semitic slurs directed at Kress. The board president received no help from the business community, which seemed to duck for cover once the shouting started. Only the quiet diplomacy of African-American community activist Pettis Norman finally resolved the dispute, but not before Kress called it quits.
On January 16, 1996, Kress held a news conference to announce he would not be seeking re-election in the spring. The savior of the school district had become an unwitting symbol of the racism many blacks felt still pervaded the district. Although the racial tenor of the times might have marked any white male with the same stain, Kress had become a liability to his own reform movement.
As he spoke, his wife and 18-month-old child stood beside him. "I have no idea what the next challenge will be," he said. "But I am sure there will be one."
Just why he left the city of his birth remains a mystery to some. There are those who believe he was finished in Dallas, so bloodied by his four years on the school board that his chance of winning elected office here was even less than most Democrats. There are those who believe he risked public humiliation if the Peavy tapes were ever released. The Dallas Observer reported in January 1998 that Peavy had told WFAA-Channel 8 reporter Robert Riggs that one of the tapes captured Kress speaking in profane terms about limiting the attendance of African-American trustees at committee meetings. Others believe that Kress felt betrayed; he'd stuck his neck out for a business community that was nowhere to be found when the going got rough.
Then there's what Kress himself says about leaving: It was time to move on. He had lost interest in electoral politics, but his civic and lobbying work with education reform kept him busy with the Legislature. His wife's family lived in Austin, and when a position opened in the Austin branch of his law firm in 1997, he grabbed it.
But the seeds of his departure were planted as early as 1992, when Kress was running for school board. Worried there might be a big Republican turnout because of a controversial issue equalizing funding between rich and poor school districts, Kress figured he had better shore up support from some of his Republican business friends. One recommended that he meet with George W. Bush, then the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers.
At Bush's office in Preston Center, Kress began to tell him about his education reforms. Despite their partisan differences, Bush sent out a letter of support for Kress.
That same year, Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock, Kress' longtime friend, appointed him to the Education and Economic Policy Center, a state agency charged by the Legislature to do a statewide accountability study for the public school system. The chair of the EEPC, Houston businessman Charles Miller, a Republican, in turn selected Kress to chair its accountability task force. Kress' staunchest supporters of his educational reforms in Dallas were Republican establishment types, so he had no trouble working with Republicans in the statewide arena.
"I made a calculated bet on Sandy, and it turned out to be one of the smartest things I ever did," says Miller, now a Bush appointee to the UT Board of Regents. "No statewide accountability system existed anywhere. We put together significant new ideas that no one had done before."
The Texas accountability plan differed from its Dallas counterpart by measuring student performance based solely on a single standardized test, without factoring in such variables as family background. It called for annual TAAS testing--reading, writing, and math--from grades 3-8 and then again at grade 10. High school students had to pass the test to graduate. Scores would result in schools being rated from exemplary to low-performing. Bad scores could lead to low teacher evaluations, firings, even school closures. Good results could lead to cash rewards. Test scores would be broken down based on race, parental income, and gender so problem areas could be targeted and attacked.
Kress thought he had Gov. Ann Richards' support for the task force's proposals, but when he appeared in front of a hostile House Education Committee in 1993, he says the governor's staffers abandoned him. Teachers and their powerful unions were outraged by the proposals: How does accountability measure socioeconomic factors that make teaching some students more difficult, if not impossible? Aren't we dumbing down education by asking only for a minimum level of performance? What if the test is unfair and teachers are fired?
When Kress reported to Bullock that the accountability plan was dead on arrival, Bullock told him, "It's going to pass." It did. Bullock piggybacked a watered-down version of the accountability plan onto school finance legislation and presented both as an all-or-nothing deal to the governor.
After the '93 session ended, Kress returned to Bush's office in Dallas, this time at Bush's invitation. Bush said he had decided to run for governor against Richards, and he wanted to understand the work of the task force. "He grilled me with questions for over an hour," Kress recalls. "Taking copious notes the whole time." Kress says he was worried that Bush wanted his support in the campaign, and he reminded Bush that he was a Democrat.
At least he was then.
In the campaign, Bush pressed accountability hard, promising voters he wouldn't tamper with the new system. Just a week after he became governor in January 1995, he informed Commissioner of Education Skip Meno (who had resisted accountability, Kress says) that he would not reappoint him to another term. Kress headed a short list of possible replacements, but Republican state Sen. John Leedom from Dallas blackballed him for partisan reasons.
Nevertheless, Bush wanted Kress involved in his administration and asked him to consult with the Governor's Business Council (GBC), a group of 100 chief executive officers from across the state that gave policy advice to the governor. Charles Miller chaired the GBC's education committee, which advised the governor on revamping the state's education code for the '95 legislative session. Democrat Bullock had also appointed Miller and Kress to a special task force charged with recommending a major overhaul of the education code to the Legislature. Among other things, those changes gave us charter schools, more local control for campuses, more authority for teachers to discipline students, and a stronger accountability system.
During the next two legislative sessions, Kress lobbied for the governor's literacy initiative (passed in 1997) and a controversial bill eliminating social promotions (passed in 1999). He became a paid consultant for the GBC, a lobbyist for Texans for Education, a board member of the Texas Business and Education Coalition. Whatever business backing he had lacked locally, he found on a statewide level. Kress wore so many educational hats, it was virtually impossible to know who he was representing and for what reason.
"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."
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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