September 15, 2007
Thank you for inviting me to speak in this hallowed, beautiful place. I’m honored, and humbled, to share some small part of the legacy of Judge Davidson – a true Texan, and a giant of our history.
We need far more men and women like him – folks who carry a sense of who we are in the marrow of their bones, who are willing to risk their careers and even their lives doing the right thing for all of the right reasons, and because it’s simply the right thing to do.
Our kids need them most of all. And, today, I want to visit with you about how they need more leaders rooted in the fundamental truth that it’s worthy to invest in children and in education.
The children of Texas need more people who see education as not merely a lucrative economic development investment – which it is, to be sure – but also as a divine mission.
For me, this truth is evident in the Old Testament, where King Solomon was beloved because of his hunger for wisdom, and in the New Testament, when a young Nazarene boy first showed himself exceptional in a talk with his teachers.
Even today, right here in this state, at the base of one of the iconic images of Texas education, the Tower at the University of Texas, the proclamation of purpose is taken from scripture, John 8:32: “Ye shall know the Truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Education is truth – our key to freedom, prosperity, salvation, and all those things imply.
Truth, of course, is a difficult matter when it comes to education – particularly when you talk to politicians. From the Rio Grande Valley to suburban Dallas to Harrison County, you will not find a politician – not one who wants to win an election, anyway – running against public education.
Yet time and time again over this past generation, these same politicians have allowed our educational system to deteriorate to the point of failure.
It may well have fallen past that point, in fact, were it not for Supreme Court judges who forced lawmakers to at least recognize their shared mission and help Texas lead the world.
If you measure success by anything other than raw, basic constitutionality, it becomes even clearer that decades of elected officials simply haven’t made education a priority.
We have more dropouts than any state in the union. We have fewer people over 25 years old with a high school diploma than any other state. We’re ranked 47th in the nation when it comes to SAT scores. And, with those statistics in mind, it’s not surprising to learn that we’re in the bottom ten states in the country when it comes to what we spend per child on that child’s education.
These are only some of the dismal numbers we face on education, and they don’t lie.
It wasn’t always this way. Nearly 200 years ago, education was so essential to our lives and our society as Texans that we went to war over it.
In Texas’ Declaration of Independence, in the midst of a long list of grievances revolving mostly around an unjust justice system, comes this outrage against the state: “It has failed to establish any public system of education, although possessed of almost boundless resources . . . and although it is an axiom in political science that unless a people are educated and enlightened, it is idle to expect the continuance of civil liberty, or the capacity for self government.”
With that, we had our divine mission. And in the ensuing decades, through statehood, Civil War and Reconstruction, our founders remained committed to it.
They set aside land – then the most valuable of our natural resources – to benefit the education system. They dedicated tax money for it. They created the Permanent School Fund with $2 million – an unimaginable sum for a rural state in the mid-Nineteenth Century.
And, finally, in 1876, they passed the document that has bedeviled the politicians for the last two decades: The Texas Constitution.
It says: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of liberties and rights of the people, it shall be the duty of the Legislature of the State to establish and make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of an efficient system of public free schools.”
It was our clarion call. Whatever happens – no matter how hard times get, no matter what demands there are on our treasury, no matter if we even have to raise additional revenues – we will, we must, invest in our children.
This was not a tithe, offering or charity. This was our duty, our purpose, our mission.
And it was more. This was truth. “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of liberties and rights of the people . . .” In other words, “The truth shall make you free.”
Our founders had committed us for centuries, forever, to educating our people. And thank God they did. Because that statement of mission in a document of importance has been the only thing that’s forced Texas to approach doing the right thing over the last 20 years.
What’s happened to us? How did Texas, this proud, wealthy state, which declared itself independent and believed that such independence was rooted in education, come to appear apathetic about educating its children? Why is something so essential to our identity judged today by little more than “constitutional adequacy”?
The answer, I think in part, is found in the legislature’s stubborn unwillingness to invest in the one thing we’re called on to provide.
We’re hording our resources – burying our talents rather than using them to serve.
In our homes and businesses, we know this as a failure to invest. At the Capitol, it’s what passes for education policy.
In 1989, the Texas Supreme Court declared that the state had fallen away from its mission by even the most basic measure of adequacy.
Keep in mind, simply complying with the Texas Constitution isn’t as difficult as receiving a campus-wide “exemplary” rating or ensuring that some percentage of students goes on to college.
No, the only benchmarks are that the system must be efficient, the schools must be free, and the legislature must provide for their support and maintenance. Only a fundamentally human failing could make such low bars seem so high.
So the politicians went to work and came up with a patch, a Band-Aid, of a solution.
There would be a little new state money put into the system. But, the real burden of funding schools would officially shift from the state to the school districts, with a handful of wealthy districts charged with equalizing the system.
And property taxes would be driven up to absurd, sometimes unaffordable heights.
It was a way out from underneath a court order. In retrospect, it appears destined to fail.
But it showed an ingenuity that should resonate with anyone who devotes more energy to maintaining a bad habit rather than repenting from it.
Robin Hood stuck for a generation. Kids who started school when it passed were about to graduate when the Texas Supreme Court declared that this, too, was unconstitutional.
So once again, the politicians descended on Austin and started looking for the thing that would get the courts off their backs.
The people of Texas demanded a solution to cure the inadequacies in our schools and prepare our children for the global economy and the 21st Century.
The politicians gave them . . . a tax shift.
Last year’s special legislative session created a business tax and poured the revenue from it into local property tax cuts. Some new money was allowed to enter the system, but school districts had to raise much of it themselves.
Within months, it became clear that the tax shift simply would not raise enough money – not just to fulfill our divine mission, but even to balance the budget.
Once again, the Legislature had an opportunity to right its course and start living within its means.
And, once again, it found an ingenious way to avoid its purpose.
Not only would the state refuse to pay fully for the things it needs, but it would actually take money from the things that need it, knowing the state’s bad habits are about to become unaffordable.
Our state leadership has imposed a false budget that hordes 2.4 billion dollars – think about that . . . 2.4 billion dollars – as a bulwark against a flood of debt that they know will wash over this state in two years.
Put simply, the state budget has put $2.4 billion in a mattress. It provides no service to any of us. It has been set aside out of fear that the tax shifting scheme will not work.
This is not the Rainy Day Fund, which helps the state through unforeseen financial crises. That’s full.
No, this is a separate account that is dedicated to standing pat, earning interest, and being there when our bad habits finally catch up with us.
It is an unprecedented act. This is what now passes for fiscal conservatism in Texas. This is what has become of our divine mission.
It is time for a new Texas Declaration. One that again calls attention to our state’s weaknesses and focuses us on its future independence and prosperity.
And education, as it was so many years before, is where we should focus our energy and our spirits, because, if we don’t, it is certainly where we pay the dearest price.
When we shield our eyes at Texas’ rankings in school completion, spending, and test scores, we all pay.
When the governor vetoes money for community colleges – the key bridge in the gap between high school and higher education – we all pay.
When we cling to two flagship universities when demographics and economics demand more, we all pay.
We pay because our world and economy has changed.
The Class of 2008, in Harrison County and everywhere else, is no longer competing only with its counterparts from Austin, Highland Park, or even other states for industrial jobs.
Your students – your children – OUR children will now strive for jobs in a global economy that depends on intellect and creativity more than natural resources or labor contracts.
Our universities are already having a harder and harder time attracting the world’s best minds. And our companies are having a harder and harder time luring them to Texas.
Employers won’t move to Texas simply because they’re proud of it.
Texas isn’t the only thing competing with Korea, India, China and other far-flung places on the globe. Texans are, as well. And it’s a bitter irony that the very leaders who stress economic development will simultaneously neglect their mission to educate its people – which, it happens, would also protect, refresh, and bolster its economy.
In this, education is more than a mission. It’s also the most effective, efficient, and culturally responsible way to help our economy and assure our economic independence.
For all the talk in the last few years about economic development, the truth is that Texas has no mission or policy for it. The state has some tactics, primarily through incentive payments, that may help recruit businesses. But their effects are fleeting, the benefits not lasting much longer than an election cycle or two.
This sort of economic candy is easy to give away. But it melts in our mouths, until it disappears.
I’m a supporter of incentive programs. I’ve worked diligently to make them available.
But, the only — the only — sustainable economic development policy is one rooted in our divine mission of education.
The charge, for you and me, for all of us, is to treat public schools exactly as we would a child or a new company that we absolutely need to succeed.
We have to recognize that this requires investment, innovation, and communication, and we have to stop pretending that it doesn’t cost us anything.
We can predict the future. For all of the good that we’ve done in Texas to get companies to invest here, they will not stay if they look up in ten years and can’t find educated, innovative workers. They will leave if their employees can’t find excellent schools for their own children.
By then, more tax breaks–more candy–won’t help. There won’t be enough incentives in all of Texas to keep them here.
We also have to begin a candid conversation about what a successful strategy will cost. We’ve got to rise above the politics of promising something-for-nothing.
If you and I care about our kids and the future of Texas, if you and I care about the economy of the state, and if you and are better than those who will trade our long-term future for their short-term bottom line, then it’s time for us to come together, tell the truth and stop pandering.
No one can accomplish great service through short cuts. And Texas can’t do what must be done on the cheap. The answer to improving education will almost certainly involve more money, and we can’t keep dodging the question of how much because we’re afraid of the answer. Or, because we’re afraid of straying from empty promises.
At a time of truly staggering challenges in our education system, we need to demand that the state truly invest in it, 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.
There will have to be a lot of noise to convince this legislature and government that our historical mission remains a righteous one. The truth is that we are on a path that leads Texas, over and over again, to buy itself out of court for as little as possible, and to focus on taxes rather than children.
That’s not how you grow a business, let alone serve a people. And it’s certainly not how you save an educational system that splits its time relentlessly drilling its students on standardized test-taking, trying to talk them into not dropping out, staving off attacks by privateers, and stretching every dollar until it tears.
Now, there will be those who say, “I don’t want to give money without reforms.” Well, so be it. Let’s not use a desire for potentially legitimate reforms as an excuse to not make the proper investment, or to abandon our identity as Texans.
But let’s also not squander vital leadership by mouthing bumper sticker attacks on an educational system that we have fought so hard for, and that we need so desperately. Let’s stay true to ourselves, our history, and our mission.
Our founders gave Texas this mission for the highest of purposes – liberty, self-government, and the preservation of rights. But this is not our mission because it’s something we should do. It’s our mission because it’s something we must do.
We must remember who we are as Texans – the values that made this state unique, and the decisions that made it great. We must not only honor that legacy, but perpetuate it.
We must be creative and fearless in searching for solutions. We must let go of the dogma and blind opposition that offers nothing but more deterioration.
And, perhaps most importantly, we must be truthful about what we have, what we need, and what it costs.
Now, more than ever, we need the truth. Only that can make us free.
Thank you, and God bless you.