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Finding an Antidote to Trump's Politics of Fear in Dallas' Backyard

Dallas school trustee Miguel Solis explained to parents at Oran M. Roberts Elementary how their kids got temporarily kicked out of the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder pattern.EXPAND
Dallas school trustee Miguel Solis explained to parents at Oran M. Roberts Elementary how their kids got temporarily kicked out of the Woodrow Wilson High School feeder pattern.
Jim Schutze
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It’s easy to get politically depressed. Sometimes it’s not easy to get out of bed. But we need to draw a deep breath and look at the long arc. Sunlight glows out there on the far horizon.

Last week at the very moment President Donald Trump was doing his Dumbo the flying orange elephant act in McAllen on the southern border of Texas, the Republican Party in Tarrant County — the state’s third most populous county and the reddest of the big ones — was stuffing, trouncing and shellacking the you-know-what out of the racist wing of the party.

Tarrant Republicans voted 139 to 49 to defeat an effort by Tea Party racists to remove county party vice chair Shahid Shafi from his position. The tea partyers wanted him out, they said, because Shafi, a surgeon and loyal Republican, is a Muslim.

Let’s not forget that Shafi was supported by top Texas Republican elected officials, including U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, Gov. Greg Abbott and Land Commissioner George P. Bush. Where does that arc point?

Let’s look closer to home. In the March 2018 Republican primary, incumbent District 114 state Rep. Jason Villalba, a Reagan conservative/moderate Republican in North Dallas, was defeated by Lisa Luby Ryan.

Ryan’s campaign was notable for her opposition to vaccines, her use of the term “black thugs” in a discussion of gun control and her rabid opposition to abortion based on her own multiple abortions.

Yes, the Republican primary went to Ryan. But the general election went to John Turner, a moderate Democrat, who beat Ryan by more than 10 percentage points, giving the district its first Democratic legislator since the Yankees moved in. So what was that all about?

Villalba had led from the center for five years. The Republican primary turnout in 2018, when Ryan defeated him, was down from the 2016 primary turnout by more than 40 percent. The Democratic primary turnout was up by 20 percent from 2016.

I don’t have a crystal ball, but here’s what I would guess. Ryan’s black-thug, anti-vax, deeply perplexing right-to-life campaign either pushed Villalba’s moderate base left into the Democratic primary or just made it impossible for them to get out of bed.

But the fact — the sunlight on the horizon — is that North Dallas swung back to center, voting for Turner over Ryan in the general election. Don’t ask me what that says about the Republican Party right now exactly, but I think you and I both can see what it says about North Dallas. North Dallas is moderate conservative, not Lisa Luby Ryan conservative, and the moderates will jump party before they’ll allow themselves to be shanghaied by the orange elephant wing.

There’s another whole level of life that I watch, even closer to the ground and closer to my own home in East Dallas, and that’s school politics. Also when Trump was on the Texas border, a little brouhaha ignited in my part of town, something I normally wouldn’t bother you with, but I think it has context here.

East Dallas is home to one of the city’s most successful public school “feeder patterns,” an alignment of elementary schools and a middle school culminating in Woodrow Wilson High School. Called “Woodrow” in East Dallas, not Wilson, the school has a long history as a solid and popular comprehensive high school, meaning it’s a regular high school instead of a magnet school.

Also present on the Woodrow campus now is an international baccalaureate program, highly competitive and rigorous, lending prestige to the school.

The student body is 63 percent Hispanic, 27 percent white and 7 percent black. Woodrow (where my son graduated) has a history of strong parent support from the nearby affluent white neighborhood of Lakewood (where we do not live).

Families all over the city want to get their kids into the Woodrow feeder pattern. If they can’t afford to live within the attendance zone lines, parents often try to shoehorn their kids in as transfer students. The result is perennial overcrowding at Woodrow and at J.L. Long, the middle school.

Some students from Oran M. Roberts Elementary School have always gone to Long and then to Woodrow. Roberts is 83 percent Hispanic, 14.6 percent black and 1.5 percent white. At its northwest corner, the attendance zone for Roberts is a half-mile from the Woodrow campus.

The deal by which only some Roberts students go to Long and the rest to another feeder pattern is anomalous and not normally the way things are done. But it’s the product of temporary displacements in the past during a rebuilding of the Roberts campus, and … it’s the deal. It’s what parents have been told, and it’s the deal on which parents at Roberts have based plans and decisions about their kids.

Imagine their anxiety, then, when the school district informed the Roberts parents out of the blue recently that Long was too crowded and their kids were no longer welcome there. For reasons that I completely understand — that any honest East Dallas parent with public school history would understand — the beady eye of suspicion was cast upon those rich white people in Lakewood.

The assumption was that Lakewood got the Latino kids kicked out of Long. The Roberts parents, who are organized and motivated, were about to rise up in wrath.

Roberts Elementary parents listened carefully and asked pointed questions after Solis and a school district executive spoke.EXPAND
Roberts Elementary parents listened carefully and asked pointed questions after Solis and a school district executive spoke.
Jim Schutze

I kind of know Lakewood from our Woodrow experience. Yes, there are Lisa Luby Ryanites lurking around in the shrubbery there, but the bulk of Lakewood tilts much more to the Villalba-style moderate conservative middle, and most of the Lakewood parents I know would almost rather have their fingers chopped off than be associated with a racist attack on a Hispanic grade school.

So, just when it was about to reach the boiling point, in steps Dallas school board member Miguel Solis, a product of Harvard graduate school and a current candidate for mayor of Dallas. I went to his community meeting one night last week, because I wanted to catch Solis on the ground and away from the mayoral campaign, dealing with some nitty-gritty in his own backyard.

About 100 parents, many with kids, were seated on folding chairs in a crowded activity room at the Jubilee Park Community Center near Fitzhugh and Interstate 30 in East Dallas. Solis opened the meeting with a concise history of the Roberts attendance zone. He said the recent change in the rules threatened to steer Roberts students to another high school, not Woodrow.

“For many of you, that’s not what you want,” he said. “And it’s not about you not wanting that school. It’s about fairness. It’s about process. And it’s about history.”

As it turned out, the not-very-genius idea of shutting the Roberts kids out of the feeder pattern had not come from Lakewood. It came from school district headquarters.

Stephanie Elizalde, the district’s chief of school leadership, got up and took the blame, explaining she was just trying to solve a numbers problem on paper and didn’t know the history at Roberts. Apparently she had been encouraged by Solis and by Dallas Park Board member Jesse Moreno to try again.

In looking again, Elizalde discovered that both Long, the middle school, and Woodrow, the high school, admit unusually large numbers of transfer students from all over the city every year. She told the Roberts parents at the community meeting that she would solve the overcrowding issues by cutting back on transfers and that the Roberts kids were welcome again at Long.

Throughout the meeting, the parents were quiet but intensely focused on what was being said. Some listened to a Spanish translation on Bluetooth earphones. After Elizalde spoke, a few parents asked pointed technical questions about transfer requirements and paperwork.

The problem was solved. There was no hysteria, no grandstanding, not a drop of demagoguery anywhere in the room. I found it very moving. Maybe I’ve attended too many community meetings.

But this was while the president of the United States was down on the border pimping for this horribly ugly gesture of insult to Mexico. Look, I am confident that if you had gone around that room at Jubilee Park that night and asked people their opinions about immigration control, you would have gotten just as varied, nuanced and smart a spectrum of opinion as you would have gotten on school attendance zones.

We all know the wall isn’t about immigration. It’s a gesture of insult. It’s an obscenity. It expresses that same dark current of xenophobia, racism and cowering fearfulness that had those Republicans in Tarrant County trying to oust the Muslim vice chairman of their party.

But the wall is not the long arc. The long arc around us is the almost 3-to-1 vote by Republicans in a conservative county to endorse a Muslim vice chair of the party. It’s Texas House of Representatives District 114 in North Dallas swinging back to center.

And it’s all of those smart, attentive, ambitious parents at Roberts making sure their kids won’t get the short end of the stick, no matter whose stick it is — working people working to lift up their families. There’s your American dream, and there is your long arc.

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