Who Follows Bradley?
Four Men vie to represent AISD District 1
For 12 years and three terms, Cheryl Bradley represented historic East Austin on the Austin Independent School District board of trustees. An often aggressive voice for the area's historically under-resourced and segregated schools, she spoke difficult truths to her fellow board members. But in recent years, she became the ruthless spearhead for the school "reform" movement, promoting single-sex schools, the failed IDEA Allan experiment, and former Superintendent Meria Carstarphen. The question facing the four candidates running to fill Bradley's seat is simple: Are East Austin voters looking for a change, or a continuation of her legacy?
Dr. Edmund T. "Ted" Gordon is a theoretician: chair of UT's African and African Diaspora Studies Department, his research has centered on race and gender in the U.S. and, inevitably, touched on educational disparity. East Austin's schools are not nearly as integrated nor diverse as the residential demographics of Austin would suggest. The region has its own diaspora, as middle-class African-American families opt for private schools, while the Hispanic population increasingly chooses charters. He's not a knee-jerk opponent of gentrification, noting that the district will gain from increased property tax values, but argues that the district "must put in place the kind of legal apparatus to allow families of modest means to take advantage of these schools."
But it's not just students who are leaving: AISD schools, and East Austin campuses in particular, are hemorrhaging qualified teachers. As a former assistant principal in Pflugerville ISD, P. Kevin Bryant said, "I stole a lot of teachers from AISD, and they were willing to work in a suburban district for less money." When he asked teachers why they quit, "every single one of them says a lack of support at the school level."
While arguing that all policies should put student achievements first, Bryant positions himself as the seasoned educator, and the right choice for the seat. Comparing the board to other, statewide administrative entities, he said, "If dentists represent dentists, and lawyers represent lawyers, then educators should represent educators." On that argument, he could split the vote with David "D" Thompson, who argues that his experience in tough and struggling schools in Atlanta and North Carolina make his experience even more relevant to East Austin. Yet like Bryant, he may have a trust issue with AISD voters: His first job in Austin education was at KIPP, one of the charter operations that poaches East Austin students and staff. "I hope that nobody sees me as the enemy," he said, adding that he could help develop programs to foil the competition. "I've been on the inside, and I've seen the way that charters have developed a culture that attracts and retains high quality teachers."
Stanton Strickland comes into the election as the only non-professional academic. However, he contends that he brings to the table something severely lacking in the current board. A 16-year resident of East Austin, and president of the Organization of Central East Austin Neighborhoods, he's also an associate commissioner at the Texas Insurance Commission. "All I have done in my career is engage with and educate stakeholders," he said. With school finance a top priority in the next legislative session, he says AISD has to make a better case for its needs, so it no longer sends $175 million a year to the state. Moreover, he understands the legal confines within which trustees work. "We cannot lobby our lawmakers, but we can work with them closely."
Within the district, the most controversial part of Bradley's legacy is undoubtedly her last major achievement: Converting Pearce and Garcia middle schools into single-sex academies. In the 2012 election, many candidates pledged to remove the unpopular IDEA Allan charter school. This time, even though both campuses are struggling to recruit students, all four District 1 hopefuls support them. Gordon and Strickland argue that, now that the program is in place, the district should take a "wait and see" approach. Gordon is more critical of the process that led to their opening, and still criticizes the lack of a clear, science-backed argument for the switch. But both Bryant and Thompson are active advocates, with Bryant stating that "for this particular clientele, single-sex schools was the way to go."
That small difference over two schools is the only real policy differentiator between the candidates. All back aggressive student recruitment. All four want to see more magnet schools and vocational training. (As Bryant dryly noted, "All my friends at school who became plumbers made more money than me.") And all four see under-enrolled campuses as an opportunity to increase partnerships with bodies like Austin Community College, Travis County, and the city to provide social programs and extra educational opportunities. But there's always the financial question: When seemingly every City Council candidate pledged to cut spending, how do you get them to commit money to AISD campuses? Gordon argued that, not only can a relatively small investment create major boosts in changing neighborhoods, but it is also a way for the city to make up for the 100-year legacy of institutional racism and neglect. He added, "It's a moral argument."
Early voting in the Nov. 4 election begins Monday, Oct. 20. See the Chronicle endorsements on p.6, and p.28-40.