In the War to Reform Dallas ISD, Tonight's Battle Might Be the Bloodiest Yet

Today is a key moment in the battle for school reform in Dallas, as a list of school principals to be fired goes before the school board. (Check back tonight for the body count.) The main opposition to the reform effort has come from southern Dallas black leadership allied with the district employees who may be about to lose their jobs.

Last week, the Dallas Citizens Council joined the Dallas Regional Chamber (of commerce) in an open letter to Dallas school board trustees, urging them to stick with the program of school reform designed and executed by school superintendent Mike Miles. So, blah-blah-blah, right? Local business persons want better schools. How is that news? Oh, man, you have to know how crazy this town is before you can even get the answer.

See also: "Mike Miles versus the World," this week's cover story by Jim Schutze

Over the years, I have said a lot of bad stuff about the Dallas Citizens Council, an elite private organization run semi-secretly from behind the scenes that I always hasten to point out is not directly descended from the old anti-racial-integration white citizens councils of yore but you'd think they might want to change their name.

And for the last several months I have been talking to people in southern Dallas about school reform, both as part of my reporting for the Observer and also on my call-in radio show on KNON, Saturdays at 10 a.m., plug-plug. A common meme -- maybe more than that, a core belief of the culture -- is that rich white business people like those on the Citizens Council want to keep black kids dumb so they can exploit them either as bottom-wage employees or, even worse, as occupants of private for-profit prisons.

Wait. If you are white, rich and howling at this moment, allow me to point something out. If somebody actually believes something that terrible about you, you need to go quiet for a moment and wonder why.

But. It's not true. It's not only not true, it's the opposite of the truth. From big corporations to small companies, business people in Texas are worried about the dwindling supply of workers qualified to do good, well-paid, skilled jobs. That's why they have been staunch supporters of school rigor and school reform throughout the current debate on standardized testing in Texas.

More than that: The fact is that in the last two decades business leadership in Dallas often has been an effective champion of diversity and inclusion in circles of power. Ron Kirk, the city's first black mayor, didn't come from South Dallas. His mayoralty was far more a creation of the Citizens Council and the Regional Chamber.

Back to that crazy paranoid view of white people: What's up with that? Where did that come from? It came straight out of a long, ugly history of plantation-style paternalism in this city, a wound that was not cauterized here as elsewhere in the '60s and early '70s. The view of rich white people as manipulative and evil is rooted in real history.

What the Citizens Council/Chamber letter showed -- and this is the news -- was that the story of business leaders wanting to keep black people down is what we can now call truly ancient history. It's bad. It's painful. But it is not the reality today.

I read their letter as saying this, and I paraphrase: We love and value all of the children in the public schools. We want them to succeed. We want to hire them in good jobs. We want them to help us succeed. We know that we are all aboard the same ship no matter what, and we want our ship to sail right. For that, the schools need to be tough, intense and unrelentingly demanding. Support Mike Miles.

Here's what's wrong with holding on to ancient history and ancient pain. It's too comfortable. It's too easy. It spares one from the sheer rigor of hope, the challenge of competition, the stretch and effort necessary once a person sees he does have a shot. It condemns children to diminished lives and even to death. I don't know if the Citizens Council or the Chamber knew it when they wrote their letter, but it was a direct and very meaningful response to that meme. It said instead, "Trust us."

And there you have it, maybe the very heart of the whole question of school reform. Trust us. That's the tough one, isn't it? Trust us. Tonight when the school board meets, we'll see about that.

In the meantime and before the moment is forgotten, it needs to be said that the Dallas Citizens Council and the Chamber did something right by saying it at all. OK, there. I said it. The next unpleasant sound you will hear will be me washing my mouth out with liberal soap.

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