Texas Democracy Requires a Lesson in History

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“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.

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4 Comments

  1. Most excellent piece.
    Unfortunately too many Texans think in terms of “my kids” and “their kids” instead of all Texas school children.

    Texans stopped thinking of themselves as Texans from a great and diverse state to “me,mine, myself and I” born again Christian Texans. They have no room for Jewish Texas children, Moslem Texas children, or even “not too big on religion” Texas children.  

  2. The real history of the free and common school in the South (which means Texas)
    While I am in agreement with the sentiments you express in your post, I think it is important to establish some historical clarity about the actual origins of true public education in Texas.  

    I just gave a speech this weekend about some of this at the Austin History Center, where I discussed the role of Governor Elisha Marshall Pease (1853-1857) in actually beginning the process of implementing the flowery public schools language that had existed in various Texas documents in the days of the Republic of Texas and the early statehood period.

    As with any issue of historical weight, the matter is complicated, but the long and short of it is basically this:  the “free and common school” for all schoolchildren, regardless of race or condition, is an outgrowth of Reconstruction.  Your statement about the 1876 Constitution being “the bedrock” of Texas public education is false.  The true bedrock is the 1869 Constitution, a copy of which you can also see at the law library link you furnished.  

    The 1876 “redeemer” constitution was a direct reaction to the gains implemented by the 1869 document; among other things it changed the funding and administrative mechanisms for Texas public education back to the stone age and remains the basis for the ongoing worship of “limited government” that has persisted to the present.  One cannot understand these developments in Texas politics and culture without understanding the role of race in all of this.  Despite all of this, the schools language of the 1876 document (which was crafted by former Confederates and which barred Black elected officials from participating) retains many aspects of the 1869 version.

    As I mentioned in my Saturday talk, the 1869 constitution is a remarkable document, really the first true experiment in multiracial democracy (which in nineteenth century terms meant that Black people actually took part) in Texas history.  Its suffrage provisions and particularly its civil rights provisions were years, indeed decades, ahead of their time.  For instance the 1869 Texas constitution guaranteed women their property rights for the first time, at a time when similar states did not have such provisions and when women could not vote in federal elections.

    Texas historians such as Carl Moneyhon and Barry Crouch have written extensively about Reconstruction in Texas, still a woefully misunderstood and underappreciated period in Texas history.  In the past I have written that Texas was the most “unreconstructed state in the union.”  This past session of the legislature has only reinforced for me what I wrote eleven years ago.  

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