When he was in Dallas, Mike Miles was always charming in person, but he definitely had a take-it-or-leave-it quality.
When he was in Dallas, Mike Miles was always charming in person, but he definitely had a take-it-or-leave-it quality.
Mark Graham

Warding off Election Night Hobgoblins and Demons by Focusing on Schools

Do you remember when it was fun to sit up election night watching the returns roll in? At our house we used to make popcorn.

Now it’s like watching a dress rehearsal for the end times. We eat chocolate candy that’s really bad for us because why not? In fact, where do you get meth?

No. That was a tasteless joke about a terrible topic. No meth. Truth be told, I was OK. I had a secret for keeping my head.

Amid the crashing oil-slicked waves, over the screams of those being taken by sharks, even when Beto was making his concession speech, I kept my cool. Through it all my eyes were locked on one point of light in the tempest, a lone candle flickering on a sea-tossed raft.

The Dallas public schools property tax thing.

OK, let me explain. The Dallas public schools property tax thing is the perfect counterpoint to everything terrible in the world right now, and I almost don’t care which side you take in the terrible.

Between 2012 and 2015, the Dallas public school system was led by Mike Miles, a tough-minded West Point graduate, former Army Ranger, former U.S. State Department diplomat, one-time Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Colorado and, at the time of his hiring in Dallas, superintendent of schools in Colorado Springs for six years. Not your typical public education bureaucrat.

His three-year tenure in Dallas was fiery. Some people hated his guts. He left suddenly in 2015 with two years left on a renewed contract, citing family health issues that I happen to know were legitimate and pressing. The people opposed to him did end zone celebrations when he left.

What those people didn’t see at the time was that his personal departure was far less important than what Miles left behind. In a mere three years, Miles and a particularly brave school board had managed to put in place an entire structure of school reforms — a system that has yet to have its New York Times moment in spite of outperforming parallel efforts all over the country.

So here is the flickering candle I watched on election night. The Texas Legislature, completely dominated now by knuckle-dragging hobgoblins and leaping demons from a medieval painting of hell, has been slashing state support for schools, directly threatening the reforms in Dallas. The school tax thing was a proposition by which Dallas voters would agree to raise their own taxes in order to fund the perpetuation of the Miles reforms.

Let’s count that one out. Raise. Their own. Taxes. Give money to the government. On purpose. Trust government. Believe in government. Believe in government’s ability to reform itself and fix things. And did I mention? Raise their own taxes.

Of course, the very idea of people raising their own taxes and believing in government has the hobgoblins and demons in the Legislature shrieking, snatching themselves bald and projectile-vomiting yellow bile. Or, as we say in Texas now, another day in Austin.

My problem on the worst days of the last two years has been that the whole country has felt like Austin, subsumed by feral anti-logical feeling, by an angry rejection of philosophy of any kind, as if people on all sides have decided to fight fire with fire and stupid with stupid. Are they voting with their hearts? You got me. For all I know, it could be the pancreas.

But in Dallas the flame I watched all night was this single arcane proposition that asked people to believe in logic, in method, in good intentions and then, more important than any of that, in results. The ideas that Miles insisted on and fought for began almost immediately to produce startlingly positive outcomes as soon as they were mobilized.

One of the ironies of Miles' tenure was that his most ferocious opponents were rank and file members of the teacher associations, joined by many minority community leaders. Yet his ideas were all based on putting teachers at the center of reform and on focusing resources on kids who live in segregated poverty.

The sticking point was that the teachers had to be good teachers. In order to pull that off, the school system had to know which ones were good.

Under Miles the Dallas public school system developed what some experts have told me is the most comprehensive nuanced evaluative system in the country, developed in part by asking teachers how they judge their own competence and how they evaluate the skills of their peers. The libel against the new system was always that it was based entirely and stupidly on bad tests, often with the suggestion that Miles must have a brother-in-law somewhere in the bad stupid test business.

He ignored all that stuff. It rolled off him like rain off a tin roof.

Once the good teachers were identified, they had to be coaxed to go to the tough schools where they were most needed, and there Miles hit on a motivational device I personally have always found persuasive — money.

By paying incentives to top teachers, Miles was able to create programs that began almost immediately taking the most egregiously ineffectual schools off the state’s death list, putting some of them instead at the front of the victory parade and doing it almost overnight. Now anybody who doubts the power and genius of great teachers has got Dallas to argue with.

The teacher associations saw Miles taking a wrecking bar to seniority pay and guaranteed tenure, so some of their hostility was predictable, if not terribly admirable.

The hostility of political leadership in the city’s bitterly poor, harshly segregated southern hemisphere was harder for me to read. I don’t know if a white guy can even figure some of that stuff out.

Miles is black. By taking bad schools in poor black neighborhoods off the state's death list and turning them into star academies, Miles was saving the lives of many of those black kids. Many of them would otherwise have been consigned to what child and education advocacy groups have labeled the urban public school kindergarten-to-prison pipeline.

People accused Miles of being controlled by the business elite, but one of his staunchest allies was Miguel Solis, one of the rising stars among the city's young progressive leaders.
People accused Miles of being controlled by the business elite, but one of his staunchest allies was Miguel Solis, one of the rising stars among the city's young progressive leaders.
Jim Schutze

By teaching children to read fluently by the end of the third grade — a crucial point of departure in development — those improved schools are now giving their kids a good shot at reading their way out of poverty. It’s the most exciting and most powerful social reform since the civil rights movement.

Yet Miles met fierce opposition from black leadership in southern Dallas. I was not surprised. One of the first things he did when he came to town was develop his own pretty brilliant analysis of the wiring between black leadership and the school system. Then he cut the wires.

As an artifact of federal desegregation decisions and of decades-long court supervision of the schools, jobs for teachers and principals in black southern Dallas were controlled “by the community,” which in effect meant by the churches. The churches have long been the effective units of political activism and control on the ground in southern Dallas.

Miles didn’t think the churches hired the right teachers or principals. He set up a leadership academy to recruit and train his own principals, and he set up his own teacher evaluation system without reference or deference to the churches.

It was like marching into Tammany Hall in New York in the 19th century and telling Boss Tweed his services were no longer required. I wasn’t surprised Miles got blowback. I was surprised he wasn’t blown to bits.

The point is that he stuck it out, and it worked. A lot of credit also goes to brave, tough board members. Another irony is that Miles’ critics painted the reforms as a sinister plot by rich white business moguls, yet one of his staunchest allies on the board was Miguel Solis. Solis is still on the board and is a rising star in the city’s young liberal/progressive intelligentsia.

But there were business moguls in there, too. They tend to be of the younger generation of business leaders whose lives have included a lot more experience of diversity than their older predecessors. The nature of the alliance of people who have supported reform in the Dallas school system is probably proof that these core social issues no longer break cleanly on the old liberal/conservative matrix. Some other new matrix, I guess.

By the end of election night, Dallas had voted 60-40 to tax itself to keep the Miles reforms funded. Maybe it was the chaos, maybe the screams, maybe Beto’s concession speech, but something brought a lump to my throat and a serious pitta-pat to my heart when I realized what the count was going to be on that proposition. Well, you know, maybe it was the pancreas. I was never that great at anatomy.

It’s not only the effectiveness of the reforms themselves. I think it has also to do with Miles himself. In all of the storm and stress of his few years here, I saw Miles exhibit a quality that I think frankly is the contrary of what we see in Washington now.

The quality that allowed all that rain to slide off the roof, that allowed Miles to soldier on to his goal, was integrity. A big part of that integrity was a willingness not to be loved.

I always found him funny and charming when we spoke, but there was always also an unmistakable quality of take it or leave it. And that quality was not bound to ego. It truly was not about him. It was about a set of ideas, precepts based on study, on a carefully wrought plan that he intended to carry out whether he got blown up or not. He had an intellectual and moral integrity that was not driven by ego or simple stubbornness.

So, yeah. On election night that’s what I tried to stay focused on. Hey, my town came out great. We won. If yours did not, condolences. And look at all the bad chocolate I got to eat anyway. Does that affect the pancreas?

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