Texas’ institutions are essential to our liberties and rights Education is especially important to forging a free and democratic society

It may seem counterintuitive, but our liberties and rights as Texans depend in part on effective, efficient institutions.

For society to move forward, the organizations it creates for shared purposes are essential — particularly during times of disruptive, unpredictable change, like the changes early settlers faced in establishing new economies and the changes today’s leaders face in addressing the impacts of a deadly global pandemic.

As we look back on recent months, many remember common experiences and think of how societies’ organizations helped or failed them. There will be a commonality of experiences around critical institutions, like schools closing campuses and shifting to virtual instruction with little warning, government providing or not providing services, or health care institutions saving peoples’ lives.

That’s the power of institutions to bring people together and help them progress forward together. Chief among society’s institutions are those that handle the education of our children — and from Texas’ earliest day, they mattered.

Yes, our state was founded around grit and individual determination — and, with those things, a certain skepticism about the role that government should play in Texans’ lives.

Yet at the very top of Article 7 of the Texas Constitution, adopted nearly 150 years ago, there’s language enshrining the state’s responsibility to provide every child a free education that will meet their needs as adults:

“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.”

As Texas’ constitutional framers knew well, a good education isn’t just important for the child who receives it. Educated students become active participants in our economy and our democracy.

That’s why it’s essential that our education system retain the faith and support of the public. Whomever voters elect in November, our leaders must reaffirm and strengthen the public’s faith in school districts, community colleges and universities — and, wherever possible, work to strengthen support for these institutions and trust in them.

Texas’ constitutional framers also saw, importantly, that a strong and “efficient system of public schools” creates a common denominator of experience that helps Americans bridge differences, communicate with each other, and democratically govern together.

In an increasingly divided state and nation, that common denominator has never been more important — or more fragile. A generational pandemic, cruel economic recession and overdue conversation about social justice have disrupted and tested every institution, including educational institutions, like never before.

Further undercutting these institutions is the steady devaluation of the expertise and learned scholarship that they create. It’s dangerous when opinions conflate with facts. We’ve seen these dangers manifest during the pandemic as people have ignored guidance on masks and social distancing based on internet or cable TV misinformation. When educational institutions and experts lose credibility, it threatens the health and lives of real people.

Institutions — whether our education system, our criminal justice system, our health care system — must, of course, be open to change as we all try to move toward a greater sense of justice and equality. Effective organizations are dynamic, flexible and responsive to changes in the world around them. It is through change that these institutions endure.

To strengthen the safety of our communities and the educational institutions (and the public’s faith in them), Texans and Americans should consider these steps:


education and business leaders should accelerate the discussion of how to leverage technology, innovation and education curricula to create the skills and knowledge that our society and economy need now and in the future.

The pandemic and recession have accelerated trends that were already transforming the role of education and higher education in society and the economy. Institutions should embrace that change and rethink time, space and human capital to create the maximum opportunities for success, such as re-evaluating the traditional school calendar.

Further, we must also rethink what is needed to support that transformation, like creating a statewide broadband plan that ensures access and affordability.

Texas' Institutions


non-profit civic organizations, like the one I lead, must step up. We can play a unique role helping the public, political leaders and businesses identify data and ideas that can strengthen the credibility of these institutions and address long-standing societal challenges.

Non-profit civic organizations must step up. We can play a unique role [to]… address long-standing societal challenges.

-Margaret Spellings

Among other things, that means coming together around a set of commonly understood facts, identifying key challenges, and then letting loose the ingenuity and determination of Texans and Americans to solve them. Civic organizations can facilitate that process by sharing data, research, staff resources and communications platforms.


we need more Texans to vote. Democracies are only as strong as their people, so more people need to participate in this one. That simple act of participating — of showing up on (or a bit before) Election Day — increases people’s stake in the system, which in turn increases both their awareness of a wide range of institutions shaping the lives of Texans, and their expectations of those institutions who serve us all.

No matter who wins which office next month, Texas’ legislative session and a new congressional term are scheduled for 2021. The victors will convene — hopefully in-person, possibly over Zoom — to debate, haggle, pass some bills and not pass others.

They all have the opportunity to leave educational institutions, among many others, stronger than they found them.