For a preview of what Democrats will face in 2018 – here, anyway – take a close look at the District 2 Dallas school board runoff election.
The Texas and Dallas Democratic Party organizations think they are reproducing the early Tea Party grassroots successes of 15 years ago by providing support to the candidate who is anti-school reform and pro-teachers unions. Opposing merit pay for teachers, sticking up instead for strict, seniority-based pay and union-protected job tenure, would have been the presumptive positions for any self-respecting Democrat to take — if only this election were 15 years ago.
But 15 years is a decade and a half — time for a lot of history and change, not just generally but within Democratic Party ranks. The Obama administration’s Race To the Top and Common Core concepts incorporated key elements of what most of us mean when we use the term school reform.
Coming down hard against school reform, especially the cornerstone principle of teacher merit pay, isn’t traditional Democratic thinking any more. It’s the thinking of the pre-Obama wing of the Democratic Party – the one that just lost the national election.
Lori Kirkpatrick, the challenger in the District 2 runoff, has returned in recent days to her original line of attack against incumbent Dustin Marshall, which is that he’s a rich North Dallas Trumpitonian type who sends his kids to a private school and only serves on the Dallas public school board so he can infiltrate the place and eventually help blow it up. In all of that, Kirkpatrick should be given credit for faithfully and candidly espousing the true party line of the Texas Democratic Party.
It’s a hard line. Gilberto Hinojosa, a respected Brownsville civil rights attorney who is chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, tells me one reason the party is supporting Kirkpatrick is her hard line against merit pay for teachers.
“We are exactly aligned with her on that issue,” he says. Merit pay, Hinojosa argues, is a trick that Trumpitonian Republicans use maliciously to hurt teachers.
“I think the problem that we [in the Democratic Party] have, which is a problem that the teachers unions have, is that merit pay is a very subjective process, and it’s very very difficult to set up a process where that kind of a system would actually be fair to all our teachers," he says. "People always use these merit pay arguments to try to justify putting teachers down.”
In that last decade and a half that we were talking about a bit ago, research from all over the nation has proved that there is a broad bell curve or very big disparity between great teachers and terrible teachers — and it either has nothing to do with seniority, or as some researchers suggest, many of the worst teachers may be hiding out in the highest seniority ranks.
In spite of that — in its face, in fact — Hinojosa takes the position that seniority is the one yardstick by which teacher competence can be measured.
“We believe that in most instances, seniority really determines the quality of a teacher you have because there are many more years of experience,” he says.
Excuse me — and I don’t mean to trivialize — but I think I could make an argument on that same logic that physical height determines the quality of a teacher because there is more height.
But what Hinojosa really says, when you get down to it, is that we might as well rely on seniority to select our best teachers because it is impossible to measure competence by any other means.
“If someone would come up with a perfect model where you could insure that people were treated fairly, then that’s something we would look at,” he says. “But we haven’t seen one yet, and we don’t think they can put one together that would be fair to our teachers.”
Being fair to teachers is important. It’s hard to think how a good educational system could be pieced together on the basis of being unfair to teachers or why anyone would want to. But the piece missing in Hinojosa’s fairness argument is about being fair to children.
Poor minority kids from chaotic or otherwise deprived backgrounds have enough counts against them before they ever set foot inside schoolhouse doors. Saddling them with the worst teachers in the district — the ones who will take any assignment to hang on to their paychecks — is an unbelievably cruel blow, one that those kids can afford less than any others.
We have evidence before our eyes here in Dallas of what happens when you turn that model around. By employing a merit assessment system to identify the best teachers and incentivizing them to teach in the toughest schools, we get the stunning success of the Dallas ACE schools program, a model that any big district in the country would be wise to emulate.
Hinojosa makes some arguments that have unmistakable merit — mainly that Texas needs to spend more money on public education. But he uses money as a door-slam to any serious consideration of school reform, including merit pay.
“We think that it comes down to resources,” he says. “We believe strongly that until you start adequately funding our public school system, you can’t even begin to look at anything else.”
He makes a further argument that may also be compelling for people who see deep themes of racism and white racial panic in national politics. Hinojosa believes that advocates of school reform are engaged in a racist conspiracy.
“They want to do this because they don’t believe in public schools,” he says. “They don’t believe that government should be educating children.
“To be frank with you, they only really went after public schools, to the extent they are going after them in Texas, when the majority of the schoolchildren in the state of Texas were Hispanic and, combined with African-Americans, gave us 70 percent of the kids in the public school system that were minority. To me, that had a lot to do with their initiative to destroy our public education system,” Hinojosa says.
In the end, he comes to precisely the same line that Kirkpatrick is preaching against Marshall in the District 2 runoff: School reformers are the agents of an incremental camel’s-nose-under-the-tent plot to destroy public education, with strong undercurrents of racism.
“They’re the first ones to support public school vouchers,” Hinojosa says. “They’re the first ones to support charter schools, and they’re the last ones to talk about adequately funding public education. They are the ones that will tell you, ‘It’s not about money. It’s about doing it the right way.’
“Bullshit,” he says.
I don’t want to drag people into this race whom I have not interviewed about the race, but I can tick off on two hands a decent list of smart, young Democrats in Dallas who do not believe a single word of what Hinojosa or Kirkpatrick has to say about school reform.
All of them, I am dead sure, were Obamacrats. I don’t know if any of them were Berniecrats. I have a feeling most of them eventually became Hillarycrats out of a deep sense of pragmatism and, maybe more urgently, because of the looming horror of the one who must not be named.
It is that last element, borrowed from the Marlon Brando line in Apocalypse Now — “the horror, the horror” — that the state Democratic Party is counting on. After the May 6 joint elections, the party congratulated local candidates like Kirkpatrick who either won their contests or at least got into runoffs with support from the party’s Project Lift.
“Texas Democrats stepped up and challenged Trump Republicans in every kind of district,” the party crowed, "including areas not thought to be Democratic-leaning.”
Marshall has voted in Republican primaries in the past but calls himself an "issues voter" who has given more money to Democrats, including Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and 2014 gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis, than to Republicans. He does send his kids to a private school, Greenhill, which has produced a truly diverse cadre of young leaders in the city. I know a little about why he sends his kids there: He is an alumnus who credits Greenhill with more or less saving his life.
He also has worked hard with a lot of people from modest roots who were working their way up in life. He’s smart but modest. It seems especially stupid to tar him as a Trumpitonian when there is not one shred of evidence to support that line. Trumpitonian how?
On top of that, it is especially and gratuitously unfair to slime him and people like him as racists because they dare to question seniority pay for teachers. At this rate, we’ll be calling people racist based on the kind of car they drive. (Well, come to think of it, I do think some kinds of cars may be racist, but that’s a column for another day. I’m trying to think of one now, and … hum ... er … let me think … hum …er … I’ll get back to you on that.)
Racism is real. The one who must not be named is real. But we have to soldier on and keep thinking and talking to each other anyway. I don’t believe we’re dumb enough as a people to become pushbutton, buzzword zombies. Except for people who drive … well, now I still can’t think of it … hum … er … zzz.
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