The petition drive appeared out of nowhere just before the March 4 primary elections. So-called "volunteers" showed up at the polls gathering signatures required by state law to kick off the home-rule process. Reporters had to scratch around to find who was behind all of it, and most of the people whom they did find declined to talk.
The shadowy billionaire bankrolling part of it is John Arnold, a former Enron person. Since Enron, Arnold has been active in public pension reform issues. He also has been a generous benefactor of preschool programs. His detractors argue that the preschool thing is just cover for a conservative agenda — a theory with too many moving parts. If all he cares about is the conservative agenda, why not just hang on to his money and tell people to kiss his ass?
But I do think the ruling paradigm among mainstream media types concerning education reform and who's for it is seriously skewed and gets in the way of good reporting. The fact that this guy is rich and maybe conservative in no way rules out his being sincerely committed to education reform, and, look, I am saying this as a lifelong hippie libtard myself. Being liberal or "progressive" in no way puts a person on the side of goodness and light here.
The biggest coalition of forces against reform — the people who will find reasons all day long why you cannot teach poor black or Hispanic kids in tough urban neighborhoods — are arrayed around what are typically taken for liberal forces. In Dallas I'm talking about the teachers unions and elected black leadership dependent on the school system for jobs.
It's true nationally, as well. Diane Ravitch, the education expert who must have a condo on the road to Damascus, has now turned against reform, which she formerly championed, arguing the same thing too many reporters believe, that reform is a sinister plot by the mega-rich to take over urban public school systems. It's a thesis that refuses to answer its own core question: Why?
She and many liberals will tell you that the only way to help poor kids is to eliminate poverty. That's a fundamentally stupid assertion, for two reasons. First, we tried that with LBJ's War on Poverty, and it did not work. There seems to be something about poverty that you can't lift other people out of. They have to lift themselves.
Secondly, you can too teach very poor kids from really tough backgrounds to read and do numbers by the end of third grade. It's a lie that you can't. The research and the data proving you can are overwhelming, and the people who started putting that all together were a bunch of damn Republicans under George W. Bush when he was governor of Texas, and don't I hate that, you bet I do, but there it is.
But, wait, again. Home rule, what home, what rule? What is it for? I had a talk last week with Mike Morath, a member of the Dallas school board who is the one who really came up with this idea. By the way, he's one of these prematurely retired rich guys devoting his life to school reform for reasons that I have been forced grudgingly to accept are sincere and moral.
Morath starts with the numbers. From 1996 to 2012, SAT achievement gaps between white and black students and between white and Hispanic students in Dallas public schools have soared far above the statewide gaps. The percentage of minority high school senior students in Dallas schools capable of achieving what the state considers a passing SAT score has hovered between 2.5 and 5 percent.
So basically the Dallas school board just needs to shut up. There is not one thing they can say to make that utterly inexcusable and intolerable failure go away. Yes, the current reform superintendent is finally nudging the dial upward, but only after he survived a concerted attempt by the teachers unions and by elected black leadership in and out of the school district to get him fired.
Morath said a lesson he has drawn from his own service on the board is that many people elected to the board bring issues, some of them legitimate, that are not about teaching kids to read and do math. They may be concerned with questions of fair hiring and fair contracting, for example — important questions, sure, but not about teaching kids to read.
He's right. Our legacy of racial injustice and the outcomes of the federal desegregation litigation have left us a certain legacy, as if the primary purpose of the school board is to achieve social justice. Nothing wrong with social justice, but how about teaching the kids to read? The evidence is that kids who can read have a much better shot at achieving their own justice than kids who can't read but we all feel really sad about it.
An all-important point here — maybe the only important point — is that it can be done. All kids can be taught. It is being done, right under our noses.
Sure, some of the poorest schools in Dallas County are bringing only 20 percent of students to grade-level literacy by the end of the third grade. But according to the 2013 "Community Achievement Scorecard" just published by the nonprofit education research group Commit!, some of the other poorest schools in Dallas County are bringing 80 and 90 percent of third-graders to grade-level literacy.
If some can do it, why isn't everybody doing it? Same kids, same demographics, same social factors. If we know it can be done, how can we continue to live with schools that don't do it?
My own two-bit take is that this home-rule thing has stumbled into public view very awkwardly. Somebody needs to get way over the whole stealth attack strategy. The issues here are profoundly political, terribly volatile, and there's no way out of that. This thing needs to get out into the public square, put on its high-heeled sneakers and some boxing gloves and join the bloody fray.
As for the billionaire guy in Houston, I've always thought you can make a perfectly plausible argument for not doing interviews just by saying, "I'm sorry, but I hate reporters." But you do have to say something.
In the meantime, we should sign the petitions. Listen, it's in the nature of the home-rule process that nobody will be able to game the outcome ahead of time. The state law is written so that the process has to be one of deliberation and discovery, ultimately voted on by the people.
There are a million different formulations that can be considered. Maybe we have an appointed school board, maybe not. Either way, Morath suggested we could have a rule that if Dallas student achievement continues to lag statewide levels for two years, the board is automatically bounced and we get a new one. It's a way of telling them to shut up and teach the kids to read.
We have to find some way to do that. We have to create a new system that doesn't think like an all-purpose government whose goal is to make life better for everyone and to achieve political legitimacy. We need a very narrowly product-oriented system. We need a system that tells the board, if those kids can't read at the end of the third grade, you can blow your legitimacy right out your apertures.
This is a huge opportunity. So what if it didn't get off on just the right foot? People with political acumen and that all-important appetite for the fray need to step in and rescue it. No more stealth. Stealth just plays right into a trap. The people invested in the status quo love it when their adversaries are stealthy. Then they can point and say, "Look, I told you so, it's a bunch of rich people sneaking up on us, being all stealthy." We all need to try not to play to our own stereotype every little chance we get.