Lots of people I know wish they could do a celebratory victory dance in front of City Hall today over the outcomes in Saturday’s local runoff elections, especially the surprising defenestration of three City Council incumbents favored by the mayor and The Dallas Morning News.
It’s amazing. I not only remember Dallas politics before there were surprises, but I remember Dallas before it had politics. So, yeah — who can believe it? Three incumbents with all the power, glory and cash of the establishment behind them, and the voters kicked them all out anyway.
I am feeling a certain personal hesitation, however, about joining in the victory dance for two reasons. One, I am no longer totally comfortable in my breechclout. (Please let me know if you think I’m being too self-conscious.)
Two, I am keenly aware that the mayor won big-time in a race I personally cared about a lot — the school board runoff between incumbent Dallas school trustee Dustin Marshall, a champion of school reform, and anti-reform challenger Lori Kirkpatrick. Marshall, who lost to Kirkpatrick in the joint election May 6, came back and trounced her two-to-one in Saturday’s runoff with strong support from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.
My overwhelming impression from talking to people around East Dallas is that many of the voters who sided with the mayor in the Marshall election had voted against him just weeks earlier in the East Dallas City Council election May 6, in which incumbent Philip Kingston won re-election in spite of stern, well-funded opposition from the mayor.
The opponents of school reform — mainly the teachers unions engaged in a bitter fight to save seniority pay — have a tough problem on their hands explaining why rich CEO types like Rawlings are so determined to fix public education. And look at it from their position. It’s hardly a winning strategy to say: “Sure, maybe the mayor wants to improve student achievement, but all we care about is seniority pay and protecting teacher tenure, no matter how bad some few teachers may be at teaching and no matter what damage they may do to kids.”
The solution to that dilemma is a strategy we saw in play in the two Kirkpatrick/Marshall races. The strategy is to insist that when people like Rawlings say they want to save public education, they are lying through their teeth. And then the anti-reformers don’t even mention seniority pay, even though saving it is their true quest.
Kirkpatrick and her supporters drummed hard on the line that school reform, far from a campaign to save public education, is a dark conspiracy aimed at destroying it. The theory is that the reformers first will subject children to too many tests in order to turn them into zombies. Then they’re going to bleed the body of public education dry with a program of private school vouchers. And then I don’t know. Maybe they’ll eat it.
If you push back a few feet, blur your eyes and listen only to the tone, the anti-school-reform conspiracy theories are an echo of ancient superstitions: If we are not vigilant, strange, malevolent tribes of wandering reformers in outlandish garb will appear in the night and steal our children.
We all need to do better than listen to that stuff. For one thing, there are genuine perils of which we do need to be mindful, and now is not a good time to get distracted. Way out over the horizon trying to come this way are uber-right-wing nutballs who really do want to get rid of public education because they want to get rid of everything because they are nutballs. The real zombies are coming.
In the meantime, the uber-zombies’ best ammunition for an all-out attack on public education is the intransigence of the massive public education establishment. Listen, the Dallas school district’s numbers show that in 2015, the percentage of high school graduates districtwide who tested at a level called “college-ready” was 8 percent.
The district managed to bring only 8 percent of its graduating seniors to a level of achievement and mastery that would have enabled them to continue their educations. In fact, since the term “high school graduate” is supposed to convey mastery of secondary education, and since college is what comes after secondary education, I would have to insist — unscientifically, I know — that a high school graduate who is not college-ready is not a high school graduate. Graduation should be an opening, not a dead end.
Those results are so miserable, so totally execrable, so utterly deplorable that they create a truth that cannot be debated: Public education is in no position to be intransigent. It simply has no standing for intransigence. It can be a lot of things — I would understand if it were panicky — but intransigence is not on the menu.
Marshall’s victory Saturday was crucial because it preserved a narrow five-vote majority bloc in favor of reform on the eight-member Dallas school board. Those five members encompass a pretty broad spectrum of orientation on noneducation issues, from quite conservative to aggressively progressive. They are bonded together on education issues by a shared perception that the means are at hand for the district to do a much better job educating its almost 90 percent impoverished student body.
A package of important reforms launched only two years ago by the previous superintendent, Mike Miles, is already beginning to show exciting improvements in student achievement, but everyone agrees the formula is not perfect and more needs to be done.
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The conversations we need to be having are about the reforms — exactly what the new programs seek to achieve and how — and not about weird conspiracy theories. We don’t have forever. When the zombies get here, we want to be able to say to them: “Why would you want to abolish public education? Look how brilliantly it’s doing.”
In other words, the only defense is success. The only reasonable debate for us to spend time on is how to achieve that success. I know some of us today are just 10-times-triple-thrilled and ready to don our breechclouts (look out!) over the beating the mayor took in the City Council races. But at some point, in order to have the right debate on schools, we’re going to have to put our clothes back on, sit down and listen to Rawlings and people like him with some measure of respect on the school-reform question.
It isn’t reasonable to assume or assert that he’s lying about his interest in public schools. That’s crazy. I’m not saying we have to agree with him on specific ideas and approaches. But we do have to listen enough to find out what the ideas and approaches are. And by the way, that’s exactly how I would interpret Saturday’s vote. People were interested in finding out the truth about public school reform, and they overwhelmingly rejected the conspiracy theories foisted on them by the teachers unions.
Is that something we could wear our breechclouts for? I’m not sure. I can’t find mine. I last used it to dry the car. I hope it didn’t shrink. Look out!