Donald Trump has a point. When he asks black voters what the hell they have to lose, he misses nuances and conflates things that shouldn’t be conflated. But he has a point.
And we are the living proof of his point here in Dallas. Last week the three African-American members of the Dallas school board killed a program aimed at saving the lives of poor black inner-city kids in Dallas. Their votes against a tax hike aimed at enriching inner-city schools were perfectly in line with local and national Democratic Party postures that oppose school reform as a threat to teacher tenure.
Call it the “Teachers’ Jobs Matter” movement.
The nature of the movement was reflected clearly in last-minute anti-school-reform revisions to the national Democratic Party platform that successfully rolled back reform goals set by President Obama. Shavar Jeffries, president of Democrats for Education Reform, said the revisions, “inexplicably allowed the process to be hijacked at the last minute.
“This unfortunate departure from President Obama’s historic education legacy,” he said, “threatens to roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”
But, wait. We’re all stepping all over ourselves already. Trump said black people have nothing to lose by voting against Democrats, as if black people were all one kind of people and Democrats all another. But we’re already talking about black people voting against black people and Democrats mad at Democrats. So let’s see if we can unknot some of this.
The problem with what Trump said was that he didn’t say which black people he was talking about. He painted all black people as poverty-stricken denizens of the ghetto, pretty much ignoring black middle- and upper-class people whose fortunes have been burgeoning since the 1960s and who have a lot to lose from certain kinds of socioeconomic instability.
And, yes, there are Democrats, and then there are Democrats. Especially from 2009 to 2016 when Arne Duncan was Obama’s secretary of education, Obama Democrats tilted measurably toward the kind of school reform that turns on classroom rigor and teacher accountability — anathema to the teachers’ unions.
But more to the point — more toward Trump’s point, actually — is that those reform ideas didn’t come from liberal Democrats originally. Those ideas came from the Texas Governor’s Mansion and from the White House when those places were inhabited by George W. Bush, the original champion of “No Child Left Behind.”
“No Child,” based on the premise that the poorest kids from the toughest backgrounds can be taught to read as well as rich white kids by the end of the third grade, was the philosophical and pedagogical forebear of the contemporary school reform movement.
So now we’re even more mixed up about it. We’ve got the black people all divvied up into different social classes instead of sticking to one narrow profile where white people can keep track of them. We’ve got the Democrats split. And somehow George Bush came into the conversation. Should we just give up?
No, because there are three themes — one, two, three — that will straighten this out for us. The first is the status quo.
The three black school board members who voted to kill a proposed tax hike ballot measure to support special programs for poor kids — Lew Blackburn, Joyce Foreman and Bernadette Nutall — all have been consistent in opposing any reform that might destabilize the school jobs patronage machinery that is a legacy of federal court intervention.
From 1994 to 2003, U.S. District Judge Barefoot Sanders administered a court-ordered monitoring system in Dallas that effectively delivered hiring and firing authority in half the public schools to the black elected political establishment, which, of course, was and is solidly Democratic, even though school board elections are nonpartisan.
Sanders is no longer with us. Court supervision is no longer with us. But Tammany Hall is here to stay.
In their public statements and postures — Foreman, for example, goes to City Hall to fight zoning requests for new charter schools — all three black board members have shown they will fight some but not all reforms. Where the rubber meets the road, they will oppose especially those reforms that threaten to destabilize the status quo on school district jobs.
Hispanic board members, by the way, who had no federal court monitor to look over them and who never had a seat at Tammany Hall, have almost uniformly voted in favor of school reform. All of them voted last week in favor of the special tax hike that the black board members killed.
Second theme: the unions. While they have talked out of many sides of their mouths on teacher accountability, both of the major teachers’ organizations in Dallas fought tooth and nail to unseat former Dallas school Superintendent Mike Miles, after Miles successfully authored one of the nation’s most sophisticated teacher merit pay systems.
Make no mistake: There is no meaningful school reform without merit pay. The heart of the Miles merit pay system for teachers is not the question of bonus pay for better teachers. It’s the question of who the better teachers are.
By using a carefully woven matrix of measurements, the Dallas Teacher Excellence Initiative (TEI), in existence only two years, already has enabled the district to identify its best teachers and pay them bonuses to teach in its worst schools.
The immediate results have been stellar: In one year of that program, called Accelerating Campus Excellence (ACE), six of seven ACE schools have been lifted up out of the gutters of academic achievement into what the state considers the acceptable range.
And please remember what we’re really talking about here. Before ACE, these seven elementary and middle schools were all intake valves for what children’s advocacy groups call the school-to-prison pipeline: The schools fail to teach kids to read by the end of the third grade. The majority of those kids never catch up. Many of them fall into the school disciplinary system, drop out, sell drugs, get caught and go to prison. When they get out they are semi-literate ex-cons, either serially imprisoned for the rest of their lives or forever out-prisoned from normal jobs and normal life because of their criminal records.
School reform is about saving those lives. The greatest contribution of the Bush “No Child” effort was the research it generated, showing that rigor, accountability and excellent teaching can and do save those lives.
And that brings me to the third theme: racism. There’s a very important thing to know about racism in our society today, and I’m not sure how many people have it figured out. It brings me back to Trump, and, believe me, speaking as an old ex-hippie liberal pinko lifelong Democrat, this is not at all where I want to be. But we have to realize that racism just doesn’t break out any more on the same lines we inherited from the Civil War — black people and good-hearted white liberals on one side, mean old rich conservative white people on the other.
Today if we want to know who’s on first, we have to ask a new question: Are you committed to teaching poor kids who grow up in violent impoverished neighborhoods to read fluently by the end of the third grade?
In their vote against enrichment for black schools, our black school board members said no, but they are not in any sense eccentrics or outliers from mainstream black politics in the nation. In fact they’re right in the pocket.
In the last two months two major black organizations, the national NAACP and a group called Movement for Black Lives that is an outgrowth of Black Lives Matter, have passed resolutions denouncing charter schools. Those groups argue that charter schools exacerbate racism by skimming top students.
The two groups wind up in the same position espoused by our board member, Foreman. She argues that charter schools are an invasion of black turf by moneyed white interests who want to experiment with what she always describes as “our babies.” Better to stick with the status quo and try to improve it incrementally from within.
Speaking about the anti-charter school resolutions adopted by the two black national organizations, Howard Fuller, a professor of education at Marquette University, a civil rights activist and president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, told The New York Times recently:
“You look at traditional districts, housing policies, all the things that have created this problem, and a charter school comes into these environments and tries to create a great school. For you to criticize based on segregation is beyond the pale. I don’t understand it. I literally don’t understand it.”
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It’s really hard to understand. The swifter currents in the political river of today seem to want to capsize everybody and have us all clambering up into the wrong boats. Who belongs where?
Here in Dallas, many of the most ardent champions of inner-city school reform are what Foreman says they are — affluent young white people from business-conservative backgrounds. But scratch a little deeper, I have found, and they are young affluent white people who have had many more significant experiences of diversity in their lives than old rich white people. They tell me that once they become convinced inner-city kids can be taught to read fluently on grade-level, they also become convinced that failing to do so — for any reason — is tantamount to a social holocaust.
The answer for them — and for me by now — is that those babies do not belong to Ms. Foreman. They are not her babies. They are our babies, all of ours. Their destinies are the responsibility of us all.
So, back to Trump. Even if he has a point, sort of, part of a point maybe, does that mean we should elect him president of the United States? Well, if having a point is the prime criterion, please come walk down my neighborhood street with me in Dallas some late afternoon. I can show you several people on my block alone who have points.