If the Bushes Are Liberals Now, Then I Must Be a ... Kumquat?

Story in The New York Times today talks about the Bush dynasty reclaiming its influence in the Republican Party by championing immigration reform. I have another idea for them, based on their legacy in Dallas: school reform.

But this is grudging, man. Why do I want the Bushes to reclaim anything? I'm bitterly anti-Bush over Iraq. Right? I'm asking myself this. Right? I'm not getting a straight answer from myself.

If you drill down to the inner core of the battle over school reform, it really forces all of us to re-examine some of the most deep-rooted of our American political assumptions. Me, for example. I'm a lifelong libtard Democrat product of Roosevelt liberal New Deal parents who saw public education as the backbone of Jacksonian democracy. So I'm on the side of the poor kids, right? And those damned rich Bush Republicans don't give a rat's ass about the poor kids, right?

Mmm. Not too sure about that. In fact, I don't think so. Maybe that's why I can't get a straight answer out of myself about the Bushes.

The basic light bulb, the awakening, the lighting of the torch for what we now call school reform in the nation started in some ways right here in Dallas at the Margaret H. Cone Headstart Center. In speeches about his "No Child Left Behind" program, President George W. Bush often cited the reading program instituted at the Cone Center in South Dallas in the mid-'90s.

Kids came to Cone from tough, violent, bitterly deprived homes and neighborhoods. Before the new program was put in place in 1994, those kids went on to become some of the lowest performing elementary students in the city. After the new program, the Cone kids went on to become some of the highest performing in the school system.

See, there's your basic light bulb. That's what turns the whole liberal/conservative paradigm on its head and in some cases knocks it on its ass.

Who believes in these kids? Liberals? Or conservatives? Let's look, you and me, at a little kid whose mother is a crack whore, who has no father, who lives hungry surrounded by violence and depravity. Which one of us believes that, in spite of the background, we can teach that kid to read, write and do numbers as well as a rich white kid by the end of third grade, thereby turning around his entire subsequent school career, thereby turning around our society? Is that a liberal belief?

I don't think so. In our own battle over school reform here, I see most of my fellow liberals arrayed on the side of poverty-first -- the doctrine that you cannot teach a poverty kid until you cure his poverty. In fact, somehow it's sort of mean and abusive to push a poverty kid through the kind of drill-and-kill rote learning it takes to catch him up with the rich kids who come to kindergarten already "reading-ready."

So, this is easy, right? Cure poverty first. Oh, forgot. Don't know how to cure poverty. OK, forget the whole thing.

Forget. That means forget the more than a million American children born every year into what some education statisticians are now calling the "cradle-to-prison pipeline." And how long do we think we get to forget that? How long can we deal with social cancer by forgetting about it?

Why would we forget it, if we can change it? What do we see, when we look at newborn children? The cradle-to-prison pipeline that is urban public education today is so ruthlessly inescapable, we could go into the maternity wards with a rubber stamp and stamp "PRISON" on the foreheads of those babies. If we can turn that around, and if it doesn't even cost any more, and if we already know how to do it, how can we not do it?

The way the forces have arrayed themselves on the school reform issue here in Dallas should be deeply troubling for liberals. Instead of fighting to turn it around, the kind of people I think of as typical Democrats are allied instead with the public education unions, the political patronage machinery that has governed public school jobs for a half century, and, most unbelievably and immorally, with the public school construction lobby that cares only about bond elections.

We see this going on here right now. You can't even count on black elected leadership to stick up for black kids, if it means giving up control over black middle-class jobs in the school district. That alone has been a major light bulb moment for me.

The ranks of those who have seen the big light bulb, who really believe that even the poorest kids can be taught and their lives turned around, often tend to include moderate Republicans. So, wait a minute. Who's the liberal? In fact, what does that word even mean any more in this context?

The thing I notice about a lot of the backers of education reform, including the ones with money, is that many of them share a characteristic with the Bushes cited in today's Times story. They have an expanded and intimate experience of diversity, sometimes, as with the Bushes, in the form of inter-marriage in their own families.

A woman married to an Israeli told me once about her own experience living in Israel, where she had seen the relatively rapid rate of inter-marriage between native Israelis and immigrants breaking down what had been initially stubborn barriers of bias against recent immigrants. "Once you have shared babies in the backyard," she said, "the bias is over."

Maybe that's some of it here. Maybe the fight over school reform is a response to deeper more intimate forces within us than mere philosophy. Over my head.

But I will say this much, however grudgingly. If the Bushes added education reform to their political mix with immigration reform, then they might help do a hell of a lot more than merely boost the fortunes of the Republican Party -- fortunes I don't especially want to see boosted. They might help force the whole country to re-examine its most basic assumptions about human dignity and human potential, which is where everything should begin.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze