The U.S. Constitution says nothing about public education, but all the state constitutions have clauses addressing it, and reading through them is a mildly inspiring way to spend half an hour. Arkansas: “Intelligence and virtue being the safeguards of liberty and the bulwark of a free and good government, the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools.” Florida: “The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida.” Idaho: “The stability of a republican form of government depending mainly upon the intelligence of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature . . .” Massachusetts: “It shall be the duty of legislators and magistrates, in all future periods of this Commonwealth, to cherish the interests of literature and the sciences.” Michigan: “Religion, morality and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
The Texas state constitution hits a similar note in Article 7, which states: “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.” Compared with the other states’ fine print, this is pretty good. It isn’t quite as ardent as Michigan’s declaration, but it has considerably more enthusiasm than Wyoming’s (“The right of the citizens to opportunities for education should have practical recognition”). And the idea it articulates, in one long legal sentence, is beautifully straightforward and persuasive: We need a well-educated populace in order to have a functional democracy, so the state should ensure that everyone gets an education. Simple.
The problems arise, as usual, when you try to figure out how to pay for it. Few areas of government are as complex as our school finance system, which must find a way of efficiently, adequately, and equitably educating 4.5 million public school students across a vast, diverse state with a rapidly growing population. School finance is one of those rare subjects, like health care, that directly affect everyone and are understood by almost nobody. It is also dangerously dull. Simply mastering the acronyms, legal precedents, and fancy lingo involved can take days. Mark Yudof, the former chancellor of the University of Texas, once compared it unfavorably to a Russian novel: “It’s long, tedious, and everyone dies in the end.”
His pessimism seems warranted these days, with the Legislature facing a budget shortfall of as much as $27 billion. As we went to press with this issue, the Texas House had just passed HB 1, an extra-lean budget bill (in brisket terms, this is a budget that would require sauce to swallow) that cuts $7 billion from schools. In the words of Representative Sylvester Turner, the highest-ranking Democrat on the committee that wrote the bill, this budget “dismantles the educational infrastructure system in the state of Texas” (he voted against it). In the words of Representative Jim Pitts, that committee’s chairman, it “does fund the essential services of state government within our available means,” though he acknowledged that it would force many districts to make dramatic and painful cuts.
Will these cuts prevent us from making “suitable provision” for public schools? And if they do, what will the impact be on the “general diffusion of knowledge” on which our liberties and rights depend? This is the most critical conversation happening in Texas right now, and yet it remains a hard discussion to have—tedious, confusing, littered with data, strewn with ideological arguments. Which is why we invited six knowledgeable people to sit down around a dinner table and have the discussion for us. I don’t know about you, but I generally find that one of the best ways to learn about a subject is to listen to experts argue about it. A good argument clears the air, scours away any false talking points, and reveals whatever common ground there is.
On page 122, you’ll find this fascinating and ferocious argument (“Night of the Living Ed”). Pull a chair up to the table and listen in, and as you do, think of these words: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential . . .”
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