September 11, 2009
Thank you all for having me here today. I’m honored, and it means a great deal to me to be able to speak with you.
For many of us who weren’t there, who were too young or too sheltered from the horrors that only ever happened in other places, President Roosevelt’s famous phrase about December 7, 1941 – “a date which will live in infamy” – might once have seemed a little hard to grasp.
A great many Americans who went to bed on September 10, 2001 – too many of us – didn’t fully comprehend the overwhelming damage, anger, and horrible vulnerability that, as we now know, are bound up in that essence of infamy.
So here we are on September 11, 2009, eight years after our time’s own infamous day. No one wonders anymore what President Roosevelt meant, because today is nothing like any other day – it shouldn’t be. It can’t be.
We need do nothing more than schedule a meeting, invite a friend to lunch, or leave ourselves a reminder about a child’s game or recital. And then this date – today, “September 11th” – leaps off the calendar and sweeps us back into the horror, sorrow, and anger we shared eight years ago – as well as the pride that followed it all.
September 11th reminds us of the loss inflicted on so many families who lost mothers, fathers and children … on that day.
It pays tribute to the heroism of so many police officers, firefighters, and other ordinary Americans who gave up their lives … on that day.
And it energizes us, once again, with the fierce, unifying patriotism that – on that day – obliterated every partisan grievance that can divide Americans.
Above all else, this day pushes every one of us into the flow of our nation’s history. Eight years ago, we saw and experienced our fellow Americans’ sacrifice, heroism, generosity, pride, strength, and unity. These values are the mortar that previous generations used to build this nation.
So, in considering this day, these values, the historical enormity of September 11th and the still smoldering pain we share, we should look to the experience of those who came before us. We should look to our parents and grandparents. For as we think about what this day will mean eight and eighty years from now, their example – as with so many things – continues to guide us.
They were strong – holding this nation together through a Great Depression. They were brave – defending us against fascism, communism and bigotry. And they were imaginative and far-sighted – imprinting their greatness onto America through innovation, investment, and hard work.
For me, this last legacy – what they did when no one was watching, when the drama of crisis and war finally ended – is a fascinating part of what makes their generation the Greatest.
They had saved the United States of America over and over and over again. They had earned a break. And yet they gave it back, coming home instead to start families and build a nation that remains without equal.
Their contributions – to medicine, science, transportation, literature and every other field of human accomplishment – are far too numerous to count here today.
But as we carve our own generation’s path from peril to prosperity, and as groups such as the Greater Austin Crime Commission seek out every tool to keep our region safe, we should take time – on this day – to consider an important inheritance we’ve taken from our parents and grandparents. And as we do, we should evaluate what we ourselves have created, what we’re going to leave behind, and whether our own children and grandchildren will know as much, think as well, and be as prepared for their world as we were for ours.
Such introspection is central to your history and mission. For 12 years, your distinguished group has supported the agencies and people that protect Central Texas. Creatively and cooperatively, you’ve found ways to raise money, involve the community, and reduce crime.
But the beauty of your mission is that it isn’t merely to help catch criminals – those who’ve already chosen their path. No, more fundamentally, you share the goal of a young teacher working at a struggling school: to make sure our children understand that they truly do have options, and that crime is the worst of them.
Each and every one of you in this room has done remarkable work helping prosperity spread safely across Central Texas. As a group, your highest mission has been, is – and must be – helping all Central Texans share in and add to that prosperity, not plunge destructively and hopelessly, trying to steal or destroy it.
This simple idea – offering opportunity and prosperity to as many people as possible – arguably proved to be our parents and grandparents’ most sustained and effective way of protecting and serving their state and nation.
So, how do we best emulate those who came before us? On this day, can we identify the key to fulfilling this mission you’ve laid out for yourselves? Today, can we isolate the thread that assures your desire, hope, and work for prosperity, safety, and lives protected from destruction seamlessly connects and continues the legacy of prior generations?
I believe in my bones that the answer – the most powerful vehicle the Greatest Generation had and this aspiring generation has – is a good education. But I fear the educational fabric of our state has become worn. I fear we are not living up to what has been passed down to us. And failure in this regard will cause us to fail in the mission we all share.
The first example that comes to mind – and rightfully so – of how powerful the force of education can be is the G.I. Bill.
This meant the world to folks who got out of the service, went to work, for example as an electrical technician, relying on what they learned in the service, and then decided they wanted more for their families. So they went to college, working all day and going to school at night, and built on that electrical technician background and became an electrical engineer.
I can’t imagine how hard they must have worked in those years – but I also can’t imagine how different their lives would have been without the college diploma.
For our state and nation, the G.I. Bill was forceful. It elevated countless Americans into the middle class, and universities in Texas and across the country scrambled to keep up with the demand.
Our state responded by bulking up its two public flagship universities – UT-Austin and Texas A&M, which now educate nearly 100,000 students.
Even years later, building on this notion that education is the key to prosperity, between 1969 and 1973, the University of Texas system alone founded institutions in Brownsville, Dallas, San Antonio, Tyler, and Odessa.
Of course, Texas’ commitment to education reaches all the way back to its creation. In their Declaration of Independence, our founders listed this outrage against the government:
“It has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources …”
Through statehood, Civil War and Reconstruction, our founders maintained their commitment to education. In 1876, they wrote it into the state Constitution, calling on future generations to support and maintain “an efficient system of public free schools.”
However, despite all of that history, the state didn’t truly and comprehensively fund
Texas schools until – yes – shortly after World War II.
In 1949, the legislature passed the Gilmer-Aiken law – creating the framework for our modern school finance system with a new commitment to support schools in a more equitable way. The bill enshrined a generation’s pledge to make sure that more Texas children would know prosperity than the generation before.
This, to me, was more than a law. It was a hard-fought act of sacrifice, heroism, generosity, pride, strength, and unity – all of those values we honor … especially on this day.
And today, September 11, as we consider where we’ve come over the past eight years, where we want to go, and the example our parents and grandparents have left us, it’s appropriate to ask why these values now seem so rare – particularly with regard to how we teach our children.
Since 1989, for 20 years now, Texas has been sued over and over again because our public schools don’t meet the most basic measures of adequacy and fairness. And despite several attempts, the state still has not found a long-term solution to fund our schools and remove the burden from property taxpayers.
Meanwhile, the percentage of state funding going to schools dropped from 47 percent the year before September 11th to less than 34 percent in 2006. That state share was restored to just less than half, but only after yet another court ruling mandated a new school finance system – and even that band-aid has started to fall off. On top of that, between the 1998 and 2006, state spending on colleges and universities dropped nearly 12 percent, while tuition and fees jumped nearly 70 percent.
The consequences of these truths are evident in Texas’ stubbornly dismal education statistics. We’re ranked near the bottom in the nation in SAT scores. We’re among the bottom ten states in per-student spending. And most tragically, most troublingly, we have the smallest percentage of people over 25-years-old with a high school diploma.
This last figure doesn’t merely break with the legacy of our parents and grandparents – it directly affects the mission of the Crime Commission.
According to a study by the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M, at least 40,000, and perhaps up to 70,000 students, in the Class of 2012 will drop out before they reach graduation. Those personal tragedies, playing out tens of thousands of times in homes across Texas, will suck $5 billion to $10 billion out of the state’s economy.
That total includes between $600 million and $1 billion lost to crime and incarceration. By increasing the graduation rate just 10 percentage points, according to researchers, we would see at least 7 percent fewer crimes, 8 percent fewer violent crimes, 20 percent fewer murders and assaults, and 13 percent fewer motor vehicle crimes.
All told, if we graduated every kid in the Class of 2012, there would be at least 19,000 fewer – and potentially 33,000 fewer – crimes in the state of Texas.
Such a goal – the perfection of a 100 percent graduation rate – isn’t necessarily realistic, I know. But it’s a goal, a target to shoot for and work toward in the midst of an undeniably serious challenge.
Unfortunately, the state is moving the other direction. I’ve already mentioned where we stand on high school graduates. And Texas’ graduation rate likely dropped this year.
If the state budget that took effect last week hits its mark – if it meets its goals – the graduation rate will drop again in 2010 and 2011.
The statistics reveal that we can expect a 16 percent dropout rate, each year of this biennium.
That’s more than 45,000 kids. Per year.
That means that if the state does everything it hopes to accomplish in the budget, well over 90,000 kids – nearly the combined student populations of U.T. and A&M – will try to make it in this world without a high school diploma.
Virtually all of them, I think it’s fair to say, won’t have any chance whatsoever to know the prosperity we’ve known in this room. Most will struggle to find work that promises real security for themselves and their family, let alone contributes to the Texas economy in a meaningful way.
And far too many of them will evaluate the one equal-opportunity, eternally available option that we don’t want them even to consider.
But this is about more than crime. This is a crisis – a clear, immediate threat to our way of life, our prosperity, and our basic safety and security.
We have got to do something about it.
What do we need to do?
That’s always the question, isn’t it?
That question could have defined our parents and grandparents’ generations. What do we need to do to keep America from disintegrating into depression? What do we need to do to win another world war? What do we need to do to conquer the Soviets and Jim Crow? And what do we need to do not only to prepare for the last half of the 20th Century, but to dominate it?
But their legacy, thankfully, isn’t in the questions. It’s in the answers.
Now, there’s no doubt that fixing education in Texas is a very different challenge from those that came before. To be fair, we’ve been wrestling with these particular challenges for a long time. They’ve persisted for years, even as so many other problems have been solved.
And, I’ve got to say, as tough as fascism and communism were to beat, neither required someone to explain what “Weighted Average Daily Attendance” is.
But no one should look at the last 80 years and pretend that anything we face now is unsolvable. And if Texas wants a model for improving our schools, we need only to look at groups like this one, and to see how you all have faced problems like crime.
You all saw the need to reach out to kids before they might find themselves in trouble, and so you partnered with UT on the Longhorn Leaders program. You all understood that resources weren’t keeping up with demands in police and sheriff’s departments, and so you worked with foundations and donors to provide needed funds. And you all grasped that basic common sense could save everyone time and money, and so you reached out to neighborhoods to improve the ways they communicate with law enforcement.
True education reform demands such creativity. It needs new leaders who can put aside slogans, explore the widest range of solutions, and figure out the best ways to try whatever looks promising.
A number of good changes are possible under the system we have right now. Some purists, on both the left and the right, will have to sacrifice their dogma and embrace new ideas. But that’s a relatively small price to pay, and a comparatively easy battle to win.
There’s another issue that’s much harder to talk about, let alone resolve. That issue, of course, is money – whether there’s truly enough, what more may be needed, and where to get it.
Let’s face it: there’s not much downside for a politician to run for office in favor of education reform. But there’s even less upside in discussing taxes, fees, or anything else that could provide more resources to our kids.
But the time has come – in fact, it’s long past – for us to be as brave as our parents and grandparents. It’s time to have a candid conversation about what a successful education system truly looks like, what it costs, and how to pay for it.
It’s time for all of us to rise above the politics of promising something-for-nothing.
If we care about our kids and the future of Texas, if we care about our state’s health and public safety, and if we’re better than those who would trade our long-term future for their short-term bottom line, then we must come together, tell the truth, stop pandering, and follow the example of earlier generations.
Nothing and no one can accomplish anything great through short cuts – not a child, and certainly not a state or a nation. Our mission must be to create a system that allows all children to work productively and live prosperously in the 21st Century economy.
This shared goal will almost certainly require more money. And we can’t keep dodging the question of how much because we’re afraid of the answer.
Instead, we must take the values we share – the best of ourselves – and do what is needed. We need to demand that the state truly invest in our education system, not just try to get by for as little as possible.
We need to campaign for it. We need to prove we really believe it.
And we have to rebuke the politicians who doubt our conviction.
This is what we saw in our parents and grandparents. This is what we learned, and must re-learn, from the trauma of September 11th. This is what it means to be a citizen: to leave Texas better than we found it, and to pass on an inheritance as great as the one we received.
The next generation is upon us. Since 9-11, in just eight years, about 33 million new Americans have been born. A population almost 50 percent bigger than all of Texas wasn’t even alive on September 11th, and the oldest of these children just started third grade.
What will that day of infamy mean for them?
How will they remember us?
Thank you. Thank you for all the good you do. God bless you, God bless Texas, and God Bless the United States of America.