On November 5 in the Dallas school board's District 8 — sort of a big wobbly east, west and northwest Dallas gerrymander — voters will choose between two candidates, both of whom are exactly the kind of people everybody always says we need more of on the school board.
Kristi Lara, 36, and Miguel Solis, 27, are both smart and deeply thoughtful about education and the future of our society. Both are idealistic. Both are tough for their ages and intensely focused on children.
But this election will have little to do with them. In fact the election will run so narrowly down the same rut that school debate has occupied here for the last 20 years, many people may completely miss the stellar quality of these two candidates.
This election will be about Mike Miles. Our embattled superintendent is still with us only by virtue of a four-four tie on a school board that is one member shy of a full deck and will be until the special election brings a ninth to the table. If the ninth is pro-Miles (that would be Solis), he stays. If the new member is anti-Miles (that would be Lara), he goes. So, yes, that is what people will be talking and thinking about rather than the personal qualities of these two candidates.
But it's also a joke to think it's all about Miles, as if he stirred it up. This fight was going on long before Miles came to town a year and a half ago, going back at least to the early 1990s when Sandy Kress, an early pioneer of accountability-based school reform, was president of the Dallas school board.
When Kress started out as a reformer in Dallas, he drew bitter opposition from black leadership who saw his reform ideas as an assault on a race-based hegemony they felt they had won as tribute in the settlement of their federal desegregation suit. That settlement was not a victory for desegregation. In fact in the 1980s black Dallas leadership, acting through a group called the Black Coalition to Maximize Education, pulled the rug from under their own lawyers and cut a deal instead with the old white business leadership in Dallas.
Black leaders wanted an end to court-ordered busing. They didn't want their kids going to school with white kids. They struck a deal with the old white leadership instead to establish a separatist school system in southern Dallas based on minority sub-districts and special funding for what were called "learning centers" — schools with beefed-up budgets under direct control of the black community.
The problem with the learning centers over the years was that they did a lousy job teaching poor kids to read. The Kress reforms, first in Dallas and later statewide, were based on two assumptions: 1) It's too easy for adults to come up with self-serving reasons not to teach kids to read. 2) We need to teach kids to read.
The blowback to the Kress ideas helped form the same weird tripartite coalition in Austin back then that we can sort of see coming together again in Dallas today. The black community hated the Kress reforms because it saw them as a threat to their control of black schools. The teachers unions saw accountability measures based on student test scores as a threat to tenure guarantees they had achieved over a long period of time in a right-to-work state. Ultra-conservative whites saw testing as a waste of money because they didn't believe you could teach poor minority kids to read anyway.
From that math then-Governor Ann Richards, the last Democrat to occupy the office, worked a solution that meant to hell with Kress and to hell with school reform. In 1993 when Kress appeared before a Texas House Education Committee, Richards pulled the rug from under him, rolled him up in the rug and tossed him to the wolves like a big burrito. No great surprise that Kress later went to work for George W. Bush as one of his top education advisers, first in Austin, later in Washington.
All of these same issues are still in play and unresolved in Dallas today. The opponents of reform are working overtime to paint the conflict as driven solely by Miles' personality — a claim absurd on its face when placed in the historical context. And the fact that the history is so long, so deep and so bad is why voters will be unable to focus on anything else in the upcoming District 8 race.
Lara, the anti-Miles candidate, is a community organizer and social activist. She was one of the orange horde who went to Austin to support the Wendy Davis filibuster. She speaks powerfully about the role of family background in the destinies of public school students and the importance of getting all communities to invest their hearts and souls in the schools.
Solis, son of a public school teacher, has already taught in a DISD school himself, left to get a master's degree at Harvard and now has returned to Dallas to make a difference. He is committed to the idea that every kid can be brought to the level of literacy and competence that enables a decent, productive life.
In any given election season, either one of these people would be the voters' dreams come true. Smart, quick, energetic, informed by both education and experience, they're both exactly what everybody says we need more of on the school board.
On the map, District 8 looks sort of like Bart Simpson running away from school — sprawling tangle of loose limbs gerrymandered all the way from Lakewood to Preston Hollow with a leading foot in West Dallas. Demographically, it is heavily Hispanic and dominated by the Medrano political family.
In fact it was the defection of a Medrano that left the District 8 seat empty and required the upcoming special election. Adam Medrano left the school board seat to win election last May to the City Council, leaving only eight sitting members on what is supposed to be a nine-member board.
And wouldn't you know it, as soon as the board dwindled to an even number, it split four-four on the most important issue before it, the tenure of the current superintendent. Three African-American members, usually divided on issues, united firmly against Miles over school reform, a program that had the effect of unplugging a decades-old machinery of black political patronage attached to the school district.
Right. That's only three. But white North Dallas trustee Elizabeth Jones joined the black trustees in wanting Miles fired for reasons that seem to have mainly to do with personality conflict. That's four.
Lara does not deny that she steps onto the field with serious backing and high hopes from the unions, especially the Alliance-AFT teachers union whose president has been calling for Miles to be fired. But when Lara talks, it's not really about Miles. It's about that longer sweep of history.
"The Miles experiences of today are a symptom of what DISD has been experiencing for over a decade," she says. "So this particular drama that is playing out in front of us right now I believe has less to do with the exact situation of the moment and more to do with what our community in Dallas has been experiencing for decades. And I hope that we as a community can move past all of this turmoil and frustration."
Does that mean Miles must be fired?
"That has yet to be determined," she says. "Because he's in a public space and his relationship with the community is imperative, I had hoped that, if he was an outsider coming in, maybe he would be able to resolve a lot of the strife and discontent and issues. But it seems that for whatever reason the bonfire is huge and glaring, and I think he may have been throwing some extra coals on it."
Yeah. That means a five-four vote to sack him.
Solis, who has the backing of the powerful Medrano family, taught in a Dallas middle school after college, worked briefly as a special assistant to Miles, earned a master's degree in public administration at Harvard and came back to Dallas to become executive director of a reform group called Stand For Children.
Solis says he will examine every issue with fresh eyes once on the board, including Miles' tenure, but when he talks about Miles he comes back to a basic line common among Miles supporters: He's doing exactly what the board hired him for and told him to do. Why wouldn't we wait to see whether it works?
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"The board gave him a three-year contract and told him to produce," Solis says. "If he's not getting the job done, then collectively they need to make a decision. If he is doing the job they hired him to do, they need to provide him the tools necessary to do the job."
That means a five-four vote to keep Miles.
What is lost in the thumbs-up or thumbs-down on Miles, however, is this: In their words and shining in their eyes is a fervent belief and commitment shared by both candidates that poor kids can be taught and must be taught and no combination of adult excuses can be allowed to get in the way of that. Just one more half-roll of the dice, and these two could have been allies in the same cause.
Instead they will be opponents in what is sure to be a bitter and ugly race, through no fault of theirs. The outcome next November is by no means anybody's shoe-in. In terms of political organizations, it's the Medranos versus Alliance-AFT, a pretty even match. We should all hope both candidates come out of it alive and in one piece.