A significant chunk of Texas2036.org, the online hub of a new non-partisan nonprofit that hopes to use data and research to drive long-range planning and policy for Texans, is a series of “red flags.” For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, population growth in Texas has been forecasted to increase 40 percent by 2036, meaning Texas would need to add 4.5 to 7.8 million new jobs by 2036 to maintain current employment rates. “You can’t do that unless you have an educated workforce,” says Tom Luce, Texas 2036’s founder, who served as a U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development during the George W. Bush administration. “And you cannot escape the inevitable fact that public education will drive the economic future of our state.”
Luce isn’t only worried about what he sees as an underfunded Texas educational system’s ability to deliver the kind of workforce the state will need by the time of its bicentennial. He’s also concerned by rising health care costs, infrastructure needs, decreasing natural resource quality, and outdated state IT resources. But he says he built Texas 2036 not just to get out in front of problems, but to come at them armed with data and research. “We have an opportunity to stay ahead of the curve,” he says.
Luce has an almost singular perspective on how public policy works, drawn from his private sector work as a founding partner of Hughes & Luce, the powerhouse Dallas-based law firm, and more than thirty years in public service—he’s been appointed to major posts by Texas governors five times, including as chief justice of the Supreme Court pro tempore, as well as posts on the Sunset Commission and the Superconducting Super Collider Commission. He’s also founded and led a cadre of other nonprofit organizations.
Monday morning, Luce visited our studio to discuss the state of the state and our future—from education to immigration, teacher pay to Amazon HQ2. Plus, we discussed what he learned from his failed 1990 gubernatorial bid and the question of how much of our state’s future is political and how much is about personal responsibility.
On How Much of Our Future Depends on Education
I always hesitate to draw things to just one simple answer, but the truth of matter is, education’s the key lever point, But this is really about all of those factors. How do they impact the future of every Texan? How do we increase everybody’s income? How do we increase everybody’s opportunity? How do we increase everybody’s mobility? And the view of Texas 2036 is that the way you set up the environment for that to happen is to concentrate on these big areas of education and health and infrastructure and natural resources. So that’s our theory of action. And that’s our theory of change.
On Population Growth
It’s the problem and the opportunity. Let’s be clear with ourselves, the reason we’ve grown over the last ten years is the integration, the migration of people domestically and internationally who were better educated and provided the workforce which we needed to allow our economy to grow. So that growth propelled our future. To those who’d say, “We won’t need as much water if we just limit population growth,” well, you’re running into a little bit of a problem. You won’t have an educated workforce to allow everybody’s economic opportunity to increase. So just like in most big societal issues, the answer is balance. The answer is taking into account all of those factors, but the only way you do that is to look at data and have a long-term strategic view of what the state should do to be able to help address those problems. That’s what we’re about.
On School Funding and Standards
In 2011, we reduced public education funding at the same time we reduced standards. We reduced assessment. We reduced accountability. And the result was that the trend line of continuous academic achievement began to turn downward. Now, I think it’s a fair question to say, “How do you allocate the responsibility between the decrease in funding, decrease in standards, decrease in assessment, decrease of accountability?” That’s not subject to a mathematical formula, but I believe strongly you can say, “You know what, if you reduce funding and you reduce standards and you reduce assessment and you reduce accountability, your educational system is going to suffer.” And that’s what happened.
On the Correlation Between Education and the Workforce
It’s about convincing every person in our state that their personal future is dependent upon the public education system. Even if they do not have children or they have children they homeschool or they have children that are in private schools, regardless, their personal economic future is dependent upon the public education system. Is that a pretty extreme statement? No, it’s not. Data shows, for instance, that we will need to create, by 2036, roughly six and a half million new jobs in this state to keep unemployment where it is today. You can’t do that unless you have an educated workforce. And if we don’t create those jobs, then tax revenues decline, number of miles of highways decline, water supplies (let alone water quality) decline. So it does impact everybody, and you cannot escape the inevitable fact that public education will drive the economic future of our state. Today we have roughly 5.4 million students in our public education system. That’s our future workforce, our future taxpayers or tax recipients.
What’s in It for Tom Luce
I believe strongly that I was blessed to be born in Texas when I was and to start my business and professional career when I did, in the mid-sixties in this state. And I’ve told my grandchildren, I could not have started my family or my career in a better place in the world than in Texas in the sixties. I want to do my best to ensure that I’ll leave that same opportunity to not only my grandchildren, but to the children and the future children that are Texans. That comes as a result of an understanding that generations before me did that for me. They created the ocean wave, which I was able to ride. I didn’t create the wave. I like to feel like, well, I got up on the surfboard, but I didn’t create the ocean wave. Somebody else created the ocean wave. And the issue is what kind of ocean wave we will have for the next generation of Texans, and I feel strongly I have an obligation to repay that.
Immigrations is essential—domestic and foreign. And we need to understand that you can secure the borders and be careful about who is permitted to migrate to this country, but we have to be an attractive place for people to come from the rest of the country and the rest of the world. Looking into the future after 2036, the essence of competition is going to be talent. How do you compete for talent? How do you get the best and the brightest? And the best and the brightest come in all shapes, all sizes, all backgrounds. And that’s what we have to deal with, is how do we make sure that Texas is the place you want to come and stay? If you’re the best and the brightest, that’s what I want the third century of Texas to be about.