Back in mid-June after the RPT convention in Fort Worth, I wrote a post in which I stated that one of my long-term plans was to help
… find a comprehensive answer to the structural and financial problems facing our educational system in our communities and across this state.
I want to start this discussion now, because this issue affects virtually every aspect of state and local government in Texas, and its resolution will determine the future prosperity and happiness of the citizens of our state.
The modern Republican Party believes in the principles of federalism and limited government, which commits us to govern only to the extent necessary to preserve liberty and order, and to do so as locally as possible. There is only one local institution in American life that has involved, at some time and in some way, every individual, every family, and every neighborhood: school. And the ripple effects of a school—both good and bad—have consequences for individuals, families and communities, which last a lifetime. We have to commit as a party to get this policy issue right.
To get it right, we first must realize that the problem with our public education system actually consists of a complex web of issues that impact about 50% of our state government’s budget on top of the property taxes and bond debt incurred at the local level. Lurking beneath the economics of our school system is a labyrinth of issues that must be addressed before we can get control of the economic issues effectively. In essence, we must start from the foundation and work our way up to fix this edifice. We have to start in the classroom and determine what education our children need to become effective citizens in the 21st Century, and how to provide that education to them. Then, we need to figure out the facilities, teachers, and parental/community involvement we will need to provide that education while working to minimize the drop-out rate. After we have a plan for education at the school and community level, we next will need to determine the optimal organizational structure for districts across the state to implement that plan, which should include a discussion of whether and how to inject competition into the system. Finally, we can then budget the cost of transitioning to, and implementing, that plan and re-organization, and determine how to effectively raise the revenue needed to fund the budget with the lowest and fairest tax burden possible—and with no income tax.
Yes, I am talking about a complete review and re-organization of the present system, because I think the past 30 years of public debate and stalemate has shown that without such a comprehensive approach, no marginal change or testing process will create the educated citizenry that we need. And we each need to be part of the discussion in order to give our legislators and school boards guidance as to how we want them to address and implement the changes that are needed.
So, I want to start this conversation with this post, and to start it at the foundation of the problem—understanding the purpose of our public education system and state government’s duty to fulfill that purpose. As with most fundamental public issues, the foundation starts with our constitution. Article 7, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution provides both the purpose and the duty:
Support and Maintenance of System of Public Free Schools. A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the 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.
This current constitutional provision pertaining to education was adopted in 1876, but by that time Texans had long committed themselves to providing for public education. The Texas Declaration of Independence of 1836 listed the failure of the Mexican government “to establish any public system of education…” as one of the reasons for declaring independence from Mexico. Then, the first public school law in the Republic of Texas was enacted in 1840, which provided for setting aside over 17,000 acres of land in each county to support public education. Later upon statehood, the Texas Constitution of 1845 provided that 10% of the annual state tax revenue be set aside as a perpetual fund to support free public schools. This early commitment to public education needs to be remembered as we try to understand the language of the current constitution.
And, as we continue our discussion about public education over several posts, we will come back to Article 7, Section 1 often. But for this post I want to focus just on the purpose of the “system of public free schools” expressed in this provision. Notice that the framers of the Texas Constitution very specifically identified the purpose of the public school system as “a general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people”. Before we can reform how the State meets its duty to provide “an efficient system of public free schools,” we must better understand the express constitutional purpose for that system.
What did the framers mean by “a general diffusion of knowledge,” and specifically, what did they mean by “knowledge”? If you separate the descriptions of the process of obtaining knowledge from the various dictionary definitions of the term “knowledge,” the picture becomes clearer. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary includes this definition of “knowledge”: “[i]n general sense: … acquaintance with ascertained truths, facts, or principles;” while the American Heritage dictionary includes this definition: “… [t]he sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or learned.” Distilling these two definitions and placing it in the context of the words of the Texas Constitution, I believe the framers meant that the purpose of the public school system was to provide “a general diffusion of the truth, facts, or principles that have been perceived, discovered or learned’ by man, which have been found over the course of human history to be “essential to the preservation of the liberties and rights of the people.”
This reading of the constitutional purpose is consistent with the once-dominant view of the purpose of American education. From the 1930s through the 1950s a great debate raged within academia over whether there should be a unifying purpose and idea underlying curriculum in this country. At the forefront of the argument that there should be such unity, was the President of Harvard University, John B. Conant, who outlined his principles in 1945 in General Education in a Free Society. In that book, Conant described the predicament of the then current state of, and debate over education, and what he believed should be its focus:
A supreme need of American education is for a unifying purpose and idea. As recently as a century ago, no doubt existed about such a purpose: it was to train the Christian citizen. Nor was there doubt how this training was to be accomplished. The student’s logical powers were to be formed by mathematics, his taste by Greek and Latin classics, his speech by rhetoric, and his ideals by Christian ethics…this enviable certainty both of goals and means has largely disappeared…. For some decades the mere excitement of enlarging the curriculum and making place for new subjects, new methods, and masses of new students seems quite pardonable to have absorbed the energies of schools and colleges…. In recent times, however, the question of unity has become insistent. We are faced with a diversity of education which, if it has many virtues, nevertheless works against the good of society by helping to destroy the common ground of training and outlook on which any society depends.
…there are truths which none can be free to ignore, if one is to have that wisdom through which life can become useful. These are the truths concerning the structure of the good life and concerning the factual conditions by which it may be achieved, truths comprising the goals of the free society.
As Conant states, there was a time when Americans knew what was meant by “truth, facts, or principles” that comprised “knowledge”. But we haven’t followed Conants’ approach over the last half century, and so our “system of public free schools” in Texas (and across the country) has lost focus, has tried to do too much with less and less efficiency, and, in the process, has accomplished far less than we hoped.
We must change this dynamic, and all of its complex consequences on our State and communities, by first addressing the core problem—we must conform the constitutional purpose of Texas education to the 21st Century challenges that will face our children and grandchildren. To do that, we need to refocus the activity in our classrooms from pre-Kindergarten through 12th grade toward providing Texas students with the incremental foundation of truths, facts, and principles they will need as adults to function as effective American citizens in a global economy, together with the experiences and tools to use such knowledge effectively and wisely. This means that our classrooms need to produce an educated citizenry, each of whom is capable of functioning at some appropriate level in our American society regardless of when they leave school, e.g., 9th grade, 12th grade, or later; and each of whom has the foundational tools with which they can engage with people from other societies and nations respectfully and productively throughout their lives.
What I just stated may appear to be self-evident—but it isn’t. Attend any graduation ceremony today and you’ll hear speaker after speaker glorify the purpose of education as creating critical and creative people who will be ready to be citizens of the world. This is lunacy. First, to become critical and creative thinkers, you first must absorb core knowledge with which you can learn to be critical and creative—critical or creative thinking alone is nothing more than educated idiocy. Second, there is not now, nor will there be in the lifetimes of anyone now living, a “world” to be a citizen of. We will remain citizens of a nation or state, who will be engaged in the wider world comprised of other nations and states. We need to know, appreciate and pledge allegiance to our own society and culture before we can ever truly understand and respect the diversity that exists among all societies and cultures. Without being grounded in a society and culture, we will create intellectual and economic nomads, rather than an educated citizenry capable of succeeding in the world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
As part of this refocus toward the constitutional purpose of our educational system, the curriculum throughout all the departments of our public schools, during each grade level, should be tailored to meet this purpose. Any other information or process that does not contribute to diffusing this foundational knowledge should be re-directed at age-appropriate levels to vocational schools, community and junior colleges, and our system of private and public colleges and universities—and to parents and churches.
If we don’t re-start the discussion over the future of education from some foundation like the one I have just proposed, we will never fix the myriad of associated problems, including
- student and teacher performance,
- tenure and pensions,
- educating the children of illegal immigrants and children with special needs,
- drop-out rates, and
- organizational inefficiencies,
which plague the affordable delivery of effective education in this State, because we will not have a frame of reference from which to address these other issues.
I know what I have said here, though basic, is a lot to digest, and some of what I have written will be controversial. So, before I build on these ideas, I’ll stop here for now and give you some time to digest and reflect.
Over the next few months, we will use Big Jolly Politics as a forum for presenting a continuing conversation about the future of education in this state from a conservative perspective, and we will invite other Republicans from our area with experience with these issues to participate as guest writers and participants in video forums to be posted on this blog. We hope this conversation will be lively and lead to effective change.