“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.” —Texas Constitution
Many Texas leaders wisely look to our nation’s and state’s Founders for guidance on important contemporary issues. For instance, Gov. Rick Perry, in his recent book Fed Up, refers to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “the glorious fulfillment of the principles of the Declaration of Independence and, ultimately, the intent behind the passage of the Reconstruction Era amendments.”
Let me suggest, then, a not-so-novel idea with regard to Texas public schools: Let’s look to the past so that we might learn about the present. Let’s ask, what would our Founders do?
The state Constitution of 1876, after all these years, remains the bedrock on which the Texas public school system is built. The constitutional requirement that Texas support and maintain “an efficient system of public free schools” derives almost verbatim from the first state Constitution of 1845, which stated: “A general diffusion of knowledge being essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people, it shall be the duty of the legislature of this State to make suitable provision for the support and maintenance of public schools.” The key difference between the two Constitutions, obviously, is the latter notion of efficiency. What, then, did our Founders intend with the word?
This much is clear: The Texans who crafted our state Constitution certainly didn’t envision a “miserly” or “cheap” system of public schools, one with just enough resources to scrape by. This notion of efficiency—as in, my F150 is more efficient than your F350—emerged with the advent of modern economics in the twentieth century, specifically with the rise of mass production in industrial factories.
Those familiar with the words of William B. Travis or Sam Houston understand that when they wrote “efficient,” they meant “effective.” (Both military men, they often referred to powerful and accurate artillery as “efficient weapons.”) When our Founders called for “an efficient system of public free schools,” they intended that the legislature provide for schools that worked, and worked well. Our Founders had children in mind, not mass-produced widgets. Our Founders understood that a powerful democracy requires more than “cheap” public schools; it requires prudent investment in all children—including the children of immigrants from distant lands (like Travis and Houston) and newly-enfranchised former slaves—using the best available resources.
The Texas Supreme Court understood this in its Edgewood v. Kirby (1989) decision. The Court wrote that “’Efficient’ conveys the meaning of effective or productive of results”; the Court understood that our Founders cared enough about our democracy to compel a top-notch education for all Texas children no matter who their parents may be.
Regrettably, the Court may once again be forced to remind the Texas legislature of its duty to our children and our democracy. This summer the legislature has shown far too little interest in the future of Texas, and far too little regard for its past.