Governor's Focus on Dallas Schools Could Shake Up City Politics

Who's the liberal? The one who wants to protect seniority pay for teachers or the one who wants to get kids out of the prison pipeline?
Who's the liberal? The one who wants to protect seniority pay for teachers or the one who wants to get kids out of the prison pipeline?
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Everybody always says the schools should be the No. 1 issue in the city. I wonder how we’ll take it when that idea suddenly comes true? Maybe well, maybe not very well at all.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been giving off strong signals in recent weeks that he thinks the Dallas public school system might make a good model for a statewide reform of teacher pay. So we should be flattered, right?

Well, no, not if you are among the many citizens who don’t like the reforms, don’t believe in the progress and just don’t like Greg Abbott. The last position is one for which I feel a certain personal sympathy.

And we’ll talk about that — the whole school reform, is it real, is it fake debate. But first, I have an observation to offer that’s a little more micro, more specific to our city and to City Hall electoral politics.

If Abbott pulls down a big focus on school reform in Dallas, it’s going to seriously challenge our own local political paradigm. The school reform question, in fact, is kind of a can-opener — as in can of worms.

The younger leadership poised to take over City Hall, the kind of people who people like me usually call progressives, typically are not progressive at all on school reform. At least on that one issue, they still spout old-style Democratic Party dogma, heavily promoted by the teachers unions, dismissing all of school reform as a right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education.

If you have read some of my stuff before, I probably don’t have to tell you I almost never have run into an anti-right-wing conspiracy theory I didn’t want to marry, at least at first. Put me in a long car ride with one of those theories in Texas in August with dodgy air conditioner, and I might change my mind. The exception, however, the one that never even tempts me, is the anti-school-reform theory, mainly because that’s a conspiracy theory that doesn’t even try to stand up to reality.

We talked here recently about the astonishing progress Dallas schools have made under the reforms enacted when Mike Miles was superintendent and sustained under current Superintendent Michael Hinojosa. Indeed, that was the kind of stuff Abbott was talking about on a recent school-centered visit here.

The governor spoke knowledgeably about Dallas’ Blanton Elementary, for example — a school full of poor kids who were scoring at rock-bottom on achievement tests five years ago. Now they’re scoring higher than rich white kids. That’s pretty hard to argue with.

But argue they do. The professional associations and labor unions representing pubic school employees have made a mantra of opposition to reform, always with the same set of soft-focus objections. Recently I came across a series of answers given to the state’s largest teachers’ organization, the Association of Texas Professional Educators, in response to a candidate questionnaire. In Bastrop County, 15 miles southeast of Austin, Democrat Michelle Ryan is running for the District 17 Texas House of Representatives seat.

On its questionnaire, the ATPE asked: “What do you feel is the proper role of standardized testing in Texas’s public education system?”

Ryan answered, “A majority of teachers nationally (and the parents and students I’ve talked to) think that standardized testing should be reduced.

“We spend hundreds of millions of dollars with private companies to administer these tests, and they have shown consistently, over decades, to have problems and technical issues. These companies continue to be fined, and lawsuits against them continue to be filed. …

“We should work with teachers, administrators and parents to come up with accountability measures and evaluations that are based on more than just one test on one day.”

But that’s just all 100 percent goofy, soft-focus, buzzword mumbling designed to suck up to the unions and gullible parents. If someone manufactured the worst violin in history — a violin so screechy it made chickens fall over dead — would that be a reason for becoming anti-violin? And the stuff about “based on more than just one test one day” is transparently and deliberately dishonest.

Nothing in the Dallas reforms is based on one test in one day. Not even close. Everything about the new system, called Teacher Excellence Initiative, is spelled out here, and I urge you to give it a look.

TEI is a system that was devised with major input from teachers, less as measurement than as a road map to help teachers come to the right hard focus on outcomes. Great emphasis is given to making sure teachers know what their kids must master and know to make grade-level at the end of the year.

Far from mindlessly testing kids for testing’s sake, TEI strives to make sure teachers are testing children on what the teacher has just taught them. You might say, “Well, of course the teacher is going test the kids on what they were taught.”

But there is no “of course” here. If we look honestly at the bleak failure of a school like Blanton five years ago to teach children anything at all, we are forced to toss all of our “of courses” out the window and admit we have no idea what was going on there.

When we look at Blanton now, where kids from some of the city’s poorest, toughest backgrounds are scoring up with kids in the wealthy Park Cities, we have to admit that school reform, very much including testing, is pulling off miracles. So we come to a very difficult question for people who consider themselves liberals and progressives.

In recent visits, Gov. Greg Abbott has sounded like he may want to make Dallas a model for statewide school reform.EXPAND
In recent visits, Gov. Greg Abbott has sounded like he may want to make Dallas a model for statewide school reform.
Jim Schutze

The consequences of not teaching poor minority children to read and do arithmetic at grade-level by the end of the third grade are well-known and very stark. It’s what child advocacy groups have called the “school to prison pipeline.” Kids drop out, sell drugs, get caught, go to prison and then are banned for life from the mainstream economy.

So who’s the liberal here? Is it someone who tells the teachers unions that tests are mean and teachers should all be paid the same but more? Or is it someone who says we need to impose more rigor and more accountability on the system to get more babies out of that damned pipeline?

These already are important issues in City Hall elections, even though City Hall has no direct responsibility for the schools. They will become even more notable if the governor puts a lot of political focus on Dallas school reform.

And then we have the rumors. I hear a persistent rumor to the effect that an attempt will be made to open a “third pole” in the 2019 mayoral race between traditional conservatives associated with the old business oligarchy and younger progressives associated with urban neighborhoods. This third pole would center on a candidate who will espouse an entire new form of school district directly under the control of the mayor, separate from the sphere of the elected school board.

Something like that would blow up the old paradigm, broadly challenging voters’ assumptions about who they are and what they believe. And who knows? Maybe more than a few dozen people would get interested in a city election for a change. That can’t be all bad. Can it?

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