Gov. Greg Abbott and Dallas School board member Miguel Solis held dueling press conferences Tuesday at public school campuses barely a mile apart in East Dallas, Abbott calling for higher pay for teachers and Solis asking where the money is.
Unspoken was a startling new theme shared by both sides: DISD is now doing so well that we need competing press conferences to see who gets the credit.
Each school, Cesar Chavez Learning Center and Solar Prep Academy, was chosen because it is an example of a series of stunning successes achieved in a short time by the Dallas Independent School District. Both men, Abbott and Solis, cited the same school reform initiative at DISD launched under former Superintendent Mike Miles, called ACE schools, as evidence that school reform is working.
But Solis said he’s sick of state officials like Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick standing in front of Dallas schools to claim credit while they work in Austin, Solis believes, to gut the financial support so important to school reform.
“My assumption is that they don’t believe in the power of public education,” he said. “They feel like it is a failed system. Therefore they are trying to create these other magic panaceas, like expansion of charters and funding of vouchers.
“My hope is that they are beginning to come around, which is why they keep coming to DISD and hosting these press conferences, but I don’t want to keep having hollow hope.”
School excellence, a theme actually uniting the dueling events, would have been unimaginable for the Dallas public school system a decade ago. Instead of a round-robin of people flailing DISD for failure, now the only debate seems to be about who gets credit for its growing success.
At his event, Abbott spoke knowledgeably of DISD’s Accelerating Campus Excellence or ACE program: “The best teachers were sent to the lowest performing schools,” Abbott said. “We have been able to measure this for three years now.
“Over a three-year period, the reading scores and math scores at least doubled and sometimes more than doubled. Students who were at some of the lowest performing schools are performing better than students who go to Highland Park [wealthy] schools.”
Solis argued that Abbott and Patrick have given lip service to innovative programs and the need for higher teacher pay for years while consistently failing to fix public-school financing in Austin or even actively opposing basic reform. Solis was joined at his press conference by John Turner, Democratic candidate for Texas House District 114, a lawyer who is an expert on school finance.
“If you believe in the progress that DISD is making,” Turner said, “if you believe in the ACE program and the early college academies and the apprenticeship programs and in the expanded coverage for pre-K, well don’t put DISD in the position of having to choose which of them to continue.
“Recently the agenda of state leadership and the governor on education has largely been to promote voucher programs, to resist any meaningful reforms in our school funding systems and to leave to our local districts like the DISD the vast majority of the burden.”
In spite of the differences in the two events, another new idea shared at both press conferences represents a fundamental change in the way people view public education. Especially for poor black kids in segregated neighborhoods, white conservatives and white liberals used to be united in believing that school achievement was determined mainly by social factors — that demographics was destiny. Then the only debate was whether anything could be done about the social factors and, if so, who should get the bill.
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But Abbott voiced an idea Solis has been expressing in Dallas for some years now — that the basic premise about demographics as destiny is not true. Kids from the poorest, most segregated and violent venues can be lifted to the same achievement levels as rich white kids, with the right teachers, methods and school regime.
“Certain schools and certain school districts,” Abbott said, “have kids coming in from parents who began reading to the child while the mom was still pregnant with the child, parents who have worked with language skills as well as math skills since the child was 1 and 2 and 3 years old.
“As a result, not all schools are equal in terms of who the students are. But here is what I have learned. All schools can be equal if those students, especially economically challenged students, have access to the best teachers.”
That idea — that all kids can be academically equal with the right teaching — was at the core of the reforms espoused by former DISD Superintendent Miles, who left under fire in 2015. Now Miles’ basic concept doesn’t even seem to be a part of what’s still up for debate.