September 20, 2007
“Lifetime learning” was a top buzz phrase a few years ago. It was a reference to those folks who continue to learn as life goes on so that they can move from career to career as the economy morphs so rapidly. It also referred to folks that continue to try to learn new stuff as they grow older. Keep the old gray matter working. When I was Austin Mayor, the AARP magazine, Modern Maturity, gave the City an award in large part because the town offered so much lifetime learning to aging citizens. Austin has received lots of recognition from different magazines, and I didn’t go to every press conference announcing every award. But, I made this one. I badly hoped that my name and the word “maturity” would end up in the same paragraph.I had some serious lifetime learning this past weekend. It was all related to music and the fantastic Austin City Limits Festival. Preston (18) and Cooper (12) were all over the place with friends, listening to different groups. Liz and I were there too. I listened to Arctic Monkeys, Arcade Fire, Muse and the Decemberists. That was an education, believe me.I also got to hear Bob Dylan. Trying to listen to Dylan was an AARP type of experience. His gravelly voice seemed even harder to understand than usual. Particularly outdoors with tens of thousands of people in the crowd. Immediately, the young people who were there started debating how old he must be.One of the guys in the group pontificated, “Well, Dylan hit it big in the “70’s.” Yeah, right. The kid must confuse every decade he wasn’t born in. I glanced back, curious to see if his knowledge base, or lack thereof, was impressing the girl he was with.They jumped to the conclusion that, at my obviously mature age, I probably had the answer. And so, in a tone reserved for someone who sneaks away from the nursing home while listening to vinyl records, the child asked me Dylan’s age. Dylan, of course, is way older than me. He’s 66. But I don’t take it personally. It was just a mistake of youth . . . or beer.
This past Saturday, I was honored to speak near Marshall, Texas as part of the semi-annual gathering of the Davidson Foundation – a group of good folks, mostly from East Texas, who just care a lot about good public policy. My long-time friend and former law school classmate, Rodney Gilstrap, invited me. He’s a former Harrison County Judge and a trustee of the Davidson Foundation. I used the speech to talk about one of my passions – education. I think that supporting and maintaining a strong public education system is part of what it means to be Texan. I also think it’s part of our shared calling to make sure that absolutely every child has the opportunity to thrive in the world.And, as I say over and over again, the only real, viable, sustainable form of economic development is education.You can read the whole speech here. But here are a couple of excerpts about the legacy we’ve allowed to fall by the wayside, and what we should do about it.
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. . . .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.. . .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 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.. . .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 all for your passion – and your support.