Partisan Values or Expertise?

ACC board, Place 1 poses an interesting choice for voters

In theory – and on the ballot – municipal races are nonpartisan. But party ties could figure heavily into the Austin Community College board of trustees Place 1 race.

No, Harrison Keller did not make a mistake when he filed his papers – he is fully aware that he is running for the board of Austin Community College. And he knows how a good percentage of this city's liberal electorate feels about his boss, the controversial Republican House Speaker Tom Craddick. The research director for the House is hoping voters can see that he and Craddick are not the same person.

Tim Mahoney, by contrast, is unmistakably a Democrat. He cut his political teeth as a journalist under Jim Hightower at The Texas Observer, and the list of supporters on his website reads like a who's who directory of Austin's liberal political establishment.

Unsurprisingly, their approaches to the office are completely different. Keller is all about nuts and bolts, a data man with an academic's focus on implementing best practices for successful educational outcomes. Mahoney views the office as political in nature, with community outreach as a board member's primary duty. (A third candidate, ACC student Mike Reid, appears to have stopped campaigning.)

"My job is to deliver the best information possible so people can make good decisions," says Keller. That's pretty much the history of his professional career – prior to his current tenure at the Capitol, he worked for UT's Charles A. Dana Center, a think tank on education strategies. "ACC needs to position itself in the center of the educational discussion in Austin. ... It needs to take more responsibility for enhancing educational opportunity. Half the kids in this area will go to ACC. Many of these kids will need developmental educational classes. If they need that, their chances of completion are nearly zero." To remedy this, Keller says, ACC needs to work on partnerships "to make sure high school students have high-quality senior year options." He says that "not a single school in Texas" is using the best-practices strategies that he has researched to these ends, including making "more and better use of technology," "easier on-ramps to education," and "doing a better job on affordability," not just making school cheaper but also making the costs more predictable.

Mahoney says he doesn't necessarily disagree with Keller's focus but that it's misguided for a board member. "That sounds like a great community college president," Mahon­ey says, suggesting Keller is seeking the wrong job. "There's a huge disconnect here on what is possible. I appreciate best practices for the U.S., but it's telling that they're not being used in Texas. ... To put the core duty for these programs on ACC instead of UT misses the point of what a community college is." The better strategy, he says, is outreach and "how you create a demand for an effective educational system. If we can't make the school districts perfect, we have to make the community more engaged." He also asserts that Austin already has a model for supplementary education programs in the Capital Idea program promoted by the Austin Interfaith community group, which provides mentoring, child care, and career-placement services for students.

Keller says that's just more of the same and not wise at a time when a recent Austin Chamber of Commerce study says that ACC's current enrollment goals will not keep up with regional population growth. "We're exploding," he says. "ACC has set modest goals. They'll succeed and pat themselves on the back. ... But when you're in a growth mode, you have the opportunity to do innovative things." His ideas, he says, "are not theory; they're being deployed around the country but not in this state."

Mahoney counters that Keller's thinking is too "linear" and that the better strategy is "embracing the community." "Saying that the determination of success is based on your high school classes is not enough. You have to find out what to do to help every kid have a successful life."

However worthy Keller's ideas may or may not be, he has a political image problem to overcome. The Burnt Orange Report, a partisan Democratic blog, attacked Keller on March 28, disputing his assertion that he's an independent. The blog pointed out not only that Keller is employed by Craddick but also that he has written policy papers for the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation. The thrust of the papers cited is that public school funding should be tied to student performance, an idea that has been stringently fought by teachers unions. Since education policy was a key reason that Republicans have lost three House seats in Travis County over the past four years, we asked Keller how he expects Austin voters to react to this. "Look," he said, "I'm a policy wonk, not an ideologue." To prove this point, he criticizes both those on the left who say more money could solve educational problems and those on the right who say higher standards and accountability are the cure for disadvantaged students. "Both of these positions are overly simplistic and distort the relationships among standards, accountability, and fiscal resources," he wrote in TPPF's 2003-04 "Legislators' Guide to the Issues."

Mahoney, for his part, didn't make too big a deal of Keller's past in a candidate's meeting with the Chronicle. "I thought it was common knowledge," Mahoney says. "He admits he's voted Republican."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Community College, Board of Trustees, Harrison Keller, Tim Mahoney, John-Michael Cortez, Nan McRaven, Raul Alvarez, Election

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