America: A Community in Jeopardy

In Monday’s perhaps decisive presidential debate on foreign policy, its participants mentioned the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Had Richard M. Nixon been elected in 1960 instead of John F. Kennedy the world almost certainly could have come to an end two years later.  Nixon was an insecure, neurotic man who would have sided immediately with the Joint Chiefs of Staff who – to a man – wanted to bomb Cuba the sooner the better.  The Russian reaction against American bombers would have triggered a nuclear catastrophe.  Kennedy was the stronger man.  He withstood the pressure of the less visionary around him, and he risked the judgment of an American people freaked out over communists lurking in every closet.

It does matter who gets elected, and in recent years across this country at many levels of government the wrong men and women have been elected for as equally a potentially conclusive moment in American history – when the very concept of community is at stake.  And the problem might be compounded in less than two weeks when the country votes for President.  Regular readers of this blog know that its central tenet is the impact and potential of the country’s new demography.  And the new demography is on par with any experience the country has faced.  It is not as compelling as missiles off the coast of Florida.  Rather, it is a slow-motion event not given to searing images or dramatic news footage, and it is happening against a backdrop of publicly-elected individuals who are fearful of the demographic change the country is undergoing and who certainly are no longer willing – as generations past did – to help pay for the success of the community of the future.

 

Across the landscape, the new demography is putting pressure on national unity, or, community – a concept paid great lip service by all but being made less real by the political partisanship that has seized the country.   The debate about the nation’s fiscal debt – how to reduce it but still meet shared responsibilities to the aged and those less fortunate – is actually about community.  It also could be the beginning of an end game that is terrible to contemplate.  The opposite of community, after all, is dangerous disunion.

And so a critical story unfolding in Texas could presage the future.  Simply put, how public schools are financed – the most elemental component of whether states and, ultimately, the country succeed – is horribly and portentously out of sync.

In 1993, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that to provide an adequate education as constitutionally required, state and local authorities needed to spend $3,500 per student, a figure that adjusted for inflation now is $6,576.  The larger figure seems paltry still, but, of the state’s 1,024 school districts only 233 can raise the minimum required if they taxed homes and property at the maximum allowed of $1.17 per $100 of assessed property.  Only eight years ago, when property-poor school districts challenged the system again, half of all enrolled students were from low-income households.  Today, that figure has risen to 61 percent, and two-thirds of those are from HispanicLatino households.  The upshot is a state headed in the wrong, abject direction led by a Legislature that actually cut $5 billion from education when last in session.

So a broad coalition of school districts organized by individuals, including one of its lead lawyers, David Hinojosa of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, has taken up again the fight to right a system that is bound to produce the wrong result if not changed – and changed quickly.  This struggle, of course, began many years before the first lawsuit was filed against the state in 1984.  But even as late as 38 years ago, had the right people in the right place done the right thing, the future of the nation’s second-largest state and the country itself might look and feel different.  The testimony in front of State District Judge John Dietz had about it an eerie sense of a community losing control of its future.

The history of America is of a people growing the pie bigger and deeper but with generous slices reserved for the non-minority part of the community.  Now, the last 12 years of anemic economic growth rates suggest the pie is not expanding for a number of mostly arcane structural reasons that most legislators do not understand and who therefore sign on to inane no-new-taxes pledges setting up the country for long-term failure.

Texas and the country do not have much of a window left.  The 2000 election was symbolically the most important of all, transitioning the country into a new millennium.  No one expected the disasters that flowed from the election of a man as President wholly unsuited for the office.  Since then, each succeeding election has brought forth to government at the state level across the nation more men and women who increasingly narrow and limit the definition of community, and who halt progress in the process.

Without men and women of courage in courthouses and statehouses and in the White House standing in the way of the forces eroding our common future, our world is in as much danger now as it was 50 years ago.

Jesse Treviño is formerly the editorial page editor of The Austin American-Statesman.

 

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