The Dallas Morning News
Can’t we all just agree on the data? Tom Luce offers a fresh debate to lift Texas
by Mitchell Schnurman, Business columnist | February 11, 2019
In the 1980s, Dallas lawyer Tom Luce went to Austin with Ross Perot to help lead the way on groundbreaking education reforms. They included more public school funding and a no-pass, no-play rule that required students to perform in the classroom before performing on the field.
Now, as he approaches his 79th birthday, Luce is taking a different tack with an even more ambitious agenda.
If people understand what the data show — that Texas’ economic advantages are at risk, that it must create roughly 6 million new jobs by 2036 — he believes they’ll rally behind a long-term plan to keep the state moving ahead.
“This is about mobilizing public opinion, not just having an impact on the political system,” Luce said. “What’s really missing is a strategic plan that looks at managing the economy across all sectors. What do we want to accomplish in health care or education or infrastructure? How do we balance water supply against water demand?
“We need a big picture view that the entire state can buy into,” he said.
The name of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group is a nod to Texas’ bicentennial and the century to follow. It also reinforces the mission to create a blueprint for the future.
Texas 2036 has raised about $5 million in the last 18 months, Luce said, and early donors and supporters include top executives, publicly traded companies and foundations.
Ray Hunt, Mark Cuban and Ross Perot Jr. are on the list. So are AT&T, Texas Instruments and Comerica Bank. Foundation names include Michael Dell, Sid Richardson, Amon G. Carter and W.W. Caruth Jr.
Margaret Spellings, U.S. secretary of education under President George W. Bush, has joined Texas 2036 as a senior consultant. On March 1, after her time as president of the University of North Carolina System officially ends, Luce said she’ll work full-time for the group with her official title to follow.
Spellings said she and Luce have been friends and colleagues for over 30 years. She was excited to join a public policy startup that aims to inform everyone, regardless of their politics.
“This is a sound idea on its face,” Spellings said. “We’re encouraging people to think long-term about how the population is changing and how we’re going to keep the economy strong.
“I want to tap into that Texas pride,” she added. “By God, if anyone can think big — about how to make the pie bigger and make sure there’s opportunity for everybody — we can. Texas could become a model for how to confront the changes ahead.”
Luce has been touring the state, asking about community problems and enlisting support for the venture. He and Spellings are scheduled to discuss the new project at a Tuesday lunch hosted by the United Way of Metropolitan Dallas.
Grant Moise, publisher and president of The Dallas Morning News, will moderate the invitation-only event at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek.
Strengths and weaknesses
Texas 2036 has 10 employees in Dallas and Austin, and plans to add more soon. Its annual operating budget is still to be determined, Luce said, because he’s still actively fundraising. So far, most of the group’s money has gone into creating an interactive data platform that’s available to anyone.
It pulls together over 300 data sets that reveal many of the strengths and weaknesses in cities, counties, school districts and the state.
One chart, for example, lists the share of high school students who scored a 3 on at least one Advanced Placement exam — an indicator of college readiness. In Allen ISD, 89 percent of students hit the mark; in Dallas, just 29 percent; in Lancaster, 8 percent.
Another chart shows federal funding for science and engineering, and the second-largest state doesn’t quite punch up to its weight. Texas placed sixth in 2016, and California, often mocked by Texas politicians, brought in over twice as much money.
Texas is No. 1 in another category: Nearly 3 million residents don’t have access to broadband service. That data point is one of many that captures problems in rural communities.
While disparities revealed by the data are often dramatic, the group isn’t suggesting a policy fix — at least not yet. Luce wants to focus on identifying the issues, quantifying the metrics and providing a more complete picture.
He’s confident that better long-term strategies will emerge from using better data. And he expects Texas 2036 to push an action plan for the next Legislature in two years.
‘Bipartisan and post-partisan’
In an era of alternative facts, why does he have faith that the truth will win out?
“We know it’s not a pure world — that people won’t make decisions based solely on the data,” Luce said. “But it sure will make for a more informed debate.”
Asked whether Texas 2036 should be described as a think tank or advocacy group or action agency, he said, “All of the above.”
But Spellings said there would be some key differences, including the absence of a political point of view.
“At the starting line, we’re going to work really hard to be fact-based and agnostic,” Spellings said. “It has to be bipartisan and post-partisan.”
In theory, state government should be doing much of this work. But Texas hasn’t done a long-range comprehensive plan since the mid-1980s, Luce said.
The so-called Texas 2000 Commission was successful in charting a 20-year course for the water supply and highway improvements. Other state sectors, such as higher education and electrical power, have also been effective in producing long-range plans, said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
Because Texas underfunds many public services, it falls to philanthropy and others, including business, to pick up the slack. Luce and Spellings come from traditional Republican roots, prior to the rise of the tea party, and Jillson is pleased to see the effort.
“The George W. Bush wing of the Republican Party is no longer the dominant force, but we’ll take good common sense wherever we can find it,” said Jillson, author of Lone Star Tarnished: A Critical Look at Texas Politics and Public Policy.
“It’s a good thing to have a well-funded private entity taking up part of the workload that the public sector won’t do,” he said.
Todd Williams, who started the Commit Partnership to improve educational outcomes, said he’s a big supporter of Luce’s project. He also urges businesses to get more engaged because they bring something special to the public square.
“They are data-driven, they think long-term, and they bring a different but credible perspective that legislators listen to,” Williams wrote in an email.
Business leaders are accustomed to monitoring results and adjusting to improve outcomes. Luce wants Texas 2036 to help Texas communities do the same.
Several key metrics are trending downward, he said, and it’s past time to get on the case.
“Too many states wait until they’re about to go off the [economic] cliff,” Luce said. “We’re trying to say, ‘Let’s stay ahead of the curve.’ ”
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