When Kelly Burke ran for mayor of Arlington, his campaign focused highly on education.
Although he lost his mayoral bid, only earning 7.4% of the vote in a seven-way race, Burke is now gunning to be elected to the Arlington ISD Board of Trustees.
“Kids have always been a focal point of my political campaigning,” Burke said.
Running for mayor has further enlightened him about education.
“I learned even more running for mayor from listening to constituents, teachers, and parents [about] what was going on in the school system, so when this seat came available, it just made sense for me just to run for it,” Burke told The Dallas Express.
Burke is an advocate for maintaining pass-fail grading policies.
“People kept telling me that I couldn’t do that as a mayor,” he said. “They felt like I couldn’t make the changes, but I think that a mayor can be as involved as he wants to be involved. So, campaigning for mayor prepared me very well.”
The father of three children co-owns a daycare center with his wife called Mrs. Burke’s Christian Academy on Matlock Road.
“We’re preparing the kids at our daycare center to go off to either public or private school,” Burke said.
If elected to the Arlington ISD school board, Burke plans to ensure that parents have a voice.
“Most people around here say that parents already have a voice but not so far as what the curriculum is and what’s going on with their children regarding mandates,” he said. “I want to make sure we are hearing from parents.”
Last year, Arlington ISD officials threatened to sue Governor Greg Abbott over his executive order banning school districts from requiring face coverings, according to a press release.
“Once Governor Abbot lifted the mask mandate, the Arlington ISD board was split on how it would handle masking, with some members voting to continue to enforce mask mandates,” Burke said. “Hopefully, we won’t have any more mandates… So, I want to make sure that we’re hearing from parents on that.”
A policy analyst with nonpartisan nonprofit Every Texan, Jaime Puente, told The Dallas Express that recent calls for parental rights, whether about masks or curriculum, are not happening in a vacuum.
“It has to be considered as a larger component to a larger effort to demonize and defund the public school system, which would ultimately rob Texas children of their right to a free high-quality education,” Puente said. “Ever since the racial desegregation efforts of the 1950s, Texas has refused to invest in the public education system in a way that benefits all Texas children. As for people calling for more parents’ voices and more parental input, Texas addressed that in 1995.”
Puente was referring to the Public Education Code, in which the Texas legislature included parental rights and responsibilities under Chapter 26.
“Section 26.003 provides for parents having reasonable access to principals or administrators with the power to reassign the student or request a change in class or teacher,” Puente added. “Section 26.006 provides parents access to review all teaching materials and instructional materials, and that has been in statute for almost two decades.”
One topic on which many parents have made their voices heard is critical race theory (CRT).
When it comes to controversial topics like CRT, Burke said he wants kids to learn that it is possible to succeed regardless of race, gender or class.
“I believe that we should teach real-world history, and if we’re teaching slavery, then we should talk about slavery in the south but also slavery in the whole world,” Burke added. “What I don’t want to be taught in our schools is that if you’re born of a certain race, then you’re unlikely to succeed or that people born of another race are bad or privileged. I believe that everybody has an even playing field in this country.”
Burke also firmly believes that if a student does not pass a grade, they should not advance to the next grade level.
“This is one of the reasons why Arlington has been performing lower as far as in ranking Texas schools because I’m pretty sure a lot of these students are being passed that shouldn’t be passed, or they’re aging them out,” he said. “I want to make sure that we’re sending those kids to alternative schools or getting them the additional help they need so that they can be educated and pass. But if they don’t really pass, then they should not be promoted.”
Trayce Bradford, national chair of the Texas Eagle Forum, a pro-family grassroots organization, concurs with Burke about maintaining pass-fail grading policies.
“Without it, it’s just an easy way of moving kids on that are hard to work with, or it’s just that the particular school is failing and that whole system is failing,” Bradford told The Dallas Express.
In 2018, Arlington ISD received a letter grade of ‘C’ on its academic performance report, a demotion from the ‘B’ it received in 2019, according to Texas Assessment Reports. In 2020 and 2021, the district was not rated due to the COVID-19 state of emergency.
“I also plan to work directly with teachers and principals to hear their needs,” Burke said. “From what I understand, a lot of the teachers that are in our system aren’t heard. So, they are somewhat voiceless as far as the process of what they are allowed to teach and just some of the concerns they have to be successful in educating our students. I want to make sure that I’m a voice for them and the parents.”
The incumbent whom Burke is challenging is Justin Chapa, a Harvard-educated attorney who has been on the school board for 7 years.
According to Chapa’s website, he has “served as a Trustee on the Board of Trustees for the Arlington ISD since 2017, where he currently is Chair of the Board’s Governance Committee. Before his Board service, Justin served multiple terms on AISD’s Financial Futures Committee and Citizens Bond Oversight Committee.”
The website also notes that Chapa served on the Capital Needs Steering Committee, which helped create AISD’s $663 million 2014 Bond package, as well as on the Board of Directors for the district’s Education Foundation, a nonprofit that disburses grants to AISD teachers.
Chapa is endorsed by the Arlington Mayor Jim Ross and many others.
“Justin Chapa is an educational leader who has the heart of [a] teacher and the resolve of an advocate who believes children in public-ed deserve an exemplary education. Justin has been on our radar since he was a dynamic student leader at SHHS and we were principals at rival high schools. We have confidence in Justin to lead the AISD,” said Laura and Jimmy Jones, namesake of AISD’s Jones Academy of Fine Arts and Dual Language.
Chapa did not respond to requests for comment.
“He is a mountain to be moved but I think he needs to be moved,” Burke said. “He leans more Democratic or liberal, and I am more conservative, but it’s a nonpartisan position, and I’m for all people when it comes to children. It’s easy for me to put politics aside and focus instead on what’s best for a child, which is education, wellbeing, and safety. Those three things are a top priority when it comes to children. That’s not political. That’s just American.”