Lobbyist a go-to guy on school policy, but some question his motives
By SCOTT PARKS / The Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN – Sandy Kress is charting the future for America's schoolchildren. Ten years ago, he was president of the Dallas school board. In 2001, he helped President Bush shoulder the No Child Left Behind Act through Congress.
TAYLOR JONES / Special to DMN
In January, Sandy Kress watched the inauguration of the man he once tutored on education policy.
He's a lawyer, a lobbyist, an education policy wonk and a once-prominent Democrat who became a top adviser to Republicans. And today, at age 55, Mr. Kress is among the most influential players in the education-industrial complex.
Some critics see a conflict. On the one hand, Mr. Kress is a leading advocate of using test data to hold schools accountable; he says his motivation is to make education better for children. On the other, the accountability movement that he espouses benefits the clients who have made him wealthy.
"One of the things that irritates people is that he wraps George W. Bush around his neck like a mink stole, and he is really this highly paid hired gun who opens up education markets for big companies," said Carolyn Boyle, a former PTA mom who lobbies to maintain funding for public schools.
BARNETT ALEXANDER "SANDY" KRESS
Born: Sept. 26, 1949, in Dallas
Education: Hillcrest High School; University of California at Berkeley, Phi Beta Kappa; University of Texas Law School, UT student body president
Career: Dallas County Democratic Party chairman, 1986-89; Dallas ISD board of trustees, 1992-96; partner, law firm of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, 1995-present; senior education adviser to President Bush, 2001
Current politics: Refers to himself as "post-partisan"
Personal: Married to Camille Ware Kress; two children.
Mr. Kress dismisses such talk as hyperbole from people who "see hobgoblins" and "commies under the bed." What they should be focusing on, he said, is bad schools where most kids fail the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
"You wanna know what motivates me?" Mr. Kress asked. "Fixing that problem is what motivates me."
Whether to feed his passion or to pad his paycheck, Mr. Kress has picked up his briefcase and headed to the Capitol to join the legislative debate about reshaping schools and the teaching profession.
"I'm a radical education reformer," he said. "That is who I am. That is the definition of Sandy Kress."
Mr. Kress is a partner at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, which describes itself as one of the world's largest law firms. He operates from an office on the 21st floor of a downtown Austin high-rise. He lives in a million-dollar home with his wife, Camille. They have two children who attend public schools.
Mr. Kress seems to be involved in every serious conversation about education policy from California to New York. His schedule keeps him hopscotching across the country as a cheerleader for No Child Left Behind, the sweeping federal education law that enshrined test data as the centerpiece of school accountability.
Under the Texas Capitol dome this session, he is the paid lobbyist for conservative businessmen intent on imposing more accountability on public schools in return for increased funding. He consults for companies that sell products and services to state education agencies and school districts. And he advises corporate chief executives under the banner of business groups such as the Business Roundtable.
Mr. Kress declined to reveal his hourly rate. It varies by client, he said. Sometimes, he volunteers his time.
At legislative hearings and education conferences and in the press, he is usually identified as a former education adviser to President Bush or as a former Dallas school board president in the mid-1990s.
Rarely mentioned publicly, however, are Mr. Kress' connections to powerful companies and business associations that have a stake in a $500-billion-a-year public education machine fueled by a politically volatile mix of federal, state and local taxes.
"Sandy is old-school in that he wants to fly under the radar screen, particularly as it relates to his lobbying activities," said longtime friend Robert Spellings, a Washington lobbyist and husband of U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. "He quietly goes about his business, and he has credibility."
Mr. Kress says he follows all public disclosure laws for lobbyists. He frowned upon hearing his friend's metaphor. "I don't fly above or below anything," he said.
Most lawmakers don't seem to care whom Mr. Kress represents. When he speaks, they listen.
Florence Shapiro, R-Plano, chairwoman of the state Senate's Education Committee, will be a key player in crafting controversial proposals based on test score data – things such as bonus pay for teachers and state sanctions for low-performing schools.
Mr. Kress "has been a vital part of everything I've done for the last two years. I say he is an adviser and mentor, and we share ideas," Ms. Shapiro said. "When it comes to public schools and the betterment of children, I don't know of anyone who cares more about that than Sandy Kress."
Ms. Shapiro said she sees Mr. Kress as a friend, not one of the estimated 300 Austin lawyer-lobbyists who represent clients interested in public education law.
"I have no idea who his clients are," she said.
Much of Mr. Kress' work takes place under the cloak of attorney-client privilege.
"I don't want to talk too much about what I do for my clients because I don't think they like that," he said.
Mr. Kress' relationship with Pearson Education, one of the world's largest education companies, illustrates how he works with some clients.
Pearson, among other things, publishes textbooks and runs high-stakes test programs for state education agencies. The company holds a $57 million contract to run the TAKS test program for 2004-05, according to the Texas Education Agency.
The Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency that reports to Congress, says states will spend $1.9 billion to $5.3 billion to implement tests mandated by No Child Left Behind.
So what is Mr. Kress' value to a major player in the textbook and testing industries?
A January 2003 meeting of Pearson executives and their investors shed some light on that question. Mr. Kress was the featured speaker.
Marjorie Scardino, the Texarkana-born chief executive of parent company Pearson PLC (which also owns The Financial Times and Penguin Books), introduced Mr. Kress as one of "the leading advisers on education policy in America."
"He also is our adviser," she said. "He talks a lot to us about how NCLB is going to change things for us and what kinds of products and services might be appropriate for that kind of change."
Mr. Kress spent 20 minutes guiding Pearson investors through his encyclopedic knowledge of federal law, helping them understand No Child Left Behind's requirements and their effect on the market: more money for English language learners, new mandates for science testing beginning in 2006-07 and a hundred other details.
During a recent interview, he talked about how he sees himself and his work. The word "lobbyist" was not prominent in his self-analysis.
What he really does, he said, is use a unique blend of knowledge about public education law and education research to chart the future for his clients. He reads research. For example, he knows what middle school math textbooks should contain and who should be hired to write them.
"I may say, 'Here's what I think' or 'Here's what I see.' "
From Dallas to D.C.
How can he be both a professorial guru and a hired gun? One lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, likened Mr. Kress to Jell-O that's hard to grab onto.
In the mid-1980s, he was Democratic Party chairman in Dallas County. He ran for the Dallas school board in 1992 and won. Even back then, he advocated upgrading learning by using a standardized test to measure academic success and teacher performance.
In 1993, George W. Bush was preparing to run for governor and called Mr. Kress for a tutorial on education policy. They became friends.
By 1995, Mr. Kress had become Dallas school board president. It was an extraordinarily divisive period for the Dallas Independent School District. Mr. Kress and other whites on the board often voted with the Latino members in a bloc that became known as the "slam-dunk gang."
Black trustees accused him of running a dictatorship that targeted minority schools for punishment for academic problems. He said he was just trying to improve the schools, and in fact student test scores did rise during his tenure. Under his leadership, DISD also implemented an accountability system to link teachers' evaluations to the performance of their students.
But after four racially charged years on the board, he chose not to run for re-election in 1996.
"The political conflicts in Dallas were complex," he said. "I don't purport to fully understand them."
The political turmoil helped persuade Mr. Kress to leave Dallas in 1997 and establish himself in Austin. By then, he had become a confidant to both Democrats and Republicans. His loyalty to Mr. Bush had deepened.
In 2001, he turned up as a temporary government employee in Washington. With his bipartisan pedigree and education expertise, Mr. Bush saw him as the perfect choice to shepherd No Child Left Behind through Congress.
Mr. Kress got much of the credit for passing the law. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., called him the president's "smooth talker." He left Washington with greater stature among Republicans, who were becoming the winning team in Washington and Austin.
Even so, Mr. Kress never switched parties publicly. He started referring to himself as "post-partisan."
Records show that he and his wife have contributed $7,000 to the Bush presidential campaigns. But he also contributed to his law firm's political action committee, which gives money to both Republicans and Democrats.
Voting records show that he participated in the 2000 Republican primary. In 2002, he voted in the Democratic primary. He didn't vote in either primary in 2004.
"I still get surprised when folks ascribe political motives to what I do," he said. "I work with Democrats. I work with Republicans. And I don't see myself, for better or worse, as making decisions to curry favor on a partisan basis."
The accountability fight
Mr. Kress also lobbies for Texas Businesses for Educational Excellence, a loose-knit group that wants a more productive public education system for their tax dollars.
The group advocates a tightly controlled industrial model for education called standards-based accountability.
The state develops a script – grade by grade and subject by subject – to determine what children should be taught. It's called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills. Teachers follow the guidelines, and children are tested to measure academic production.
Test results allow the state to target teachers and principals for praise or blame. The scores also point to schools that might need restructuring.
Teachers and other critics say this system steals creativity from the classroom and leaves no time for deeper learning and critical thinking. Mr. Kress dismisses those complaints. He says good teachers can find time for a well-rounded curriculum beyond TEKS.
"You cannot teach a whole semester on dinosaurs," Mr. Kress said. "With some teachers, it would be a whole semester on dinosaurs. It's a revolution. In the past, those decisions were made in the classroom."
Linda McNeil, a professor of education at Rice University, says the business model for public education is disrespectful of teachers.
"The idea is that teachers don't work hard and that they need to be shaped up by business people," said Dr. McNeil, a critic of the standards-based accountability movement.
The focus on a uniform statewide testing system, she argued, shifts public attention away from the poor school environment that many lower-income students endure each day – inferior libraries, too few textbooks, no running water in science classes.
"Sameness becomes a proxy for equity," she said. "The so-called accountability system becomes a mask for the old inequalities."
Critics say Mr. Kress' education philosophy equates teachers to salesmen. Mr. Kress is among those who advocate bonuses for schools that score better on TAKS, with principals deciding which teachers are rewarded.
He is also pushing the TEA to classify more Texas schools as "low-performing." Right now, some are ranked "acceptable" even though no more than 25 percent of their students pass the TAKS test.
Mr. Kress also advocates new, "muscular" sanctions for schools that remain low-performing for three years in a row when compared with schools with similar demographics.
To escape those schools, parents might be given publicly funded vouchers to transfer their children to private schools. Or regulators might turn the operations of chronically low-performing schools over to private for-profit or nonprofit management companies.
"Whether it's done by school people themselves or contracted out to somebody else, I'm agnostic on that," Mr. Kress said. "But that it be done is essential."
Mr. Kress also says he believes state government should expand the number of charter schools in Texas. Educational choices for parents are a good thing, he said.
Talk of vouchers and privatizing public schools is threatening to many teachers, administrators and other public school advocates.
Ms. Boyle, the former PTA mom, works with many of those who are alarmed. She runs the Coalition for Public Schools, an amalgam of 40 organizations that represent everyone from teachers to school administrators to elected school board members.
And she is suspicious of those who talk about issuing vouchers and corporations taking over failing public schools.
"I'm looking at all of this as a parent with a lot of heart involved," said Ms. Boyle, who spends her days fighting legislative proposals to divert money from public schools. "These guys are looking at schools with their brains and calculators."
KRESS: HIS CLIENTS AND HIS ACTIVITIES
Education adviser to President George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 campaigns. Played key role in helping Mr. Bush push the No Child Left Behind law through Congress.
Consultant to Council of Chief State School Officers, an association of state education commissioners. Mr. Kress advises them on how to implement No Child Left Behind's requirement that all states set up accountability systems based on high-stakes test scores.
Consultant to the Business Roundtable, a Washington D.C.-based consortium of chief executives of major American companies. The organization has been active in education issues for many years.
Co-founder of the Texas Education Reform Caucus. TERC was created as an advisory committee for state Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, chairman of the Public Education Committee in the Texas House of Representatives.
Adviser, consultant and lobbyist for Pearson Education, a worldwide company that publishes textbooks and runs high-stakes test programs in Texas and other states.
Lobbyist for Kaplan, a division of The Washington Post Co. Kaplan provides a wide range of educational products and services. It first made its mark in the test-preparation industry.
Lobbyist for The Teaching Commission, a New York-based think tank started by Louis V. Gerstner Jr., chairman of The Carlyle Group, a private global investment firm. The Teaching Commission advocates more rigorous teacher-training programs and paying them based on merit rather than seniority.
Consultant to the Governor's Business Council, a group of Texas business leaders that have recommended a wide-ranging list of changes to public education law in Texas. Charles McMahen, a retired Houston banker, chairs the council.
Lobbyist for Texas Businesses for Excellence in Education. The group hired Mr. Kress to help get the Governor's Business Council recommendations into Texas law. It advocates stricter sanctions for schools that are judged "low-performing" based on high-stakes test scores. Houston investor Charles Miller and San Antonio businessman H.B. Zachry Jr. are involved in this group.
Former lobbyist for K12, which in 2003 unsuccessfully pushed the Texas Legislature to publicly fund so-called virtual charter schools. K12 sells curricula that home-schoolers can get over the Internet. William J. Bennett, a former U.S. secretary of education, is a director of the company. Mr. Kress says he no longer works for K12.
Former lobbyist for Community Education Partners. Under contract with school districts, the company runs alternative campuses for problem students who have been kicked out of regular classrooms. Mr. Kress says he has not worked for CEP since 1999.
SOURCES: Texas Ethics Commission, Sandy Kress and Dallas Morning News research.