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Watch: Tom Luce and Margaret Spellings discuss the future of Texas

We sat down for a live virtual event with the leaders of the nonprofit research organization Texas 2036 to discuss education, reopening the economy and how the state can be competitive.

Texas turns 200 in 16 years, and the leaders of a Dallas-based nonprofit want to mark that milestone with long-lasting changes to policy.

Texas 2036, which is named after the upcoming bicentennial of Texas, is a nonpartisan organization that advocates for data-driven strategies that will advance the state.

The organization released its strategic framework Thursday, which centers on areas such as education, workforce, health, natural resources and justice.

Tom Luce, Texas 2036’s founder and chairman, and Margaret Spellings, the organization’s president and CEO, sat down for a virtual conversation Thursday morning with Texas Tribune CEO Evan Smith to discuss the organization's goals, the state's reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the needs of the education system.

“If we don't do a much better job of educating our own people, we're going nowhere fast,” Spellings said.

Smith: Why this organization and why now?

Luce said his tenure in the public arena has taught him that the different silos for Texas issues — such as education, transportation, mental health — need more collaboration.

“At the end of the day, it all has to fit together,” he said. “All these big problems are big systems that need transformation and it doesn’t occur overnight; you can’t fix them in one session.”

Passing one piece of legislation won’t fix the system, he said. It’s about systemic transformation and having a long term strategy can help guide day-to-day decisions.

“I used to say long term was next November; now I say it’s today’s tweet,” he said.

Looking at COVID-19 case and hospitalization data, did Texas reopen too soon?

Luce said that it’s important that state leaders be cautious but also weigh the costs of their decisions, both in terms of public health and economics.

“It was a balancing act between lives and livelihood,” Luce said. “The economic fallout from this pandemic has been tremendous. I feel like we have to reopen, but we have to, as citizens and public figures, understand we didn’t flatten the curve, we flattened to a plateau.”

Luce acknowledged that the data is concerning and urged both residents and lawmakers to move forward with caution — and not ignore the situation as it is developing.

Are schools reopening too soon?

Getting back to business is crucial for learning retention for students, Spellings said. She especially fears learning loss for disadvantaged students.

"We’ve had time this summer to pull back and say, 'Holy cow, we better get ready for the new normal in the fall,'” she said.

She said educators, both in K-12 and higher education, are tackling issues such as access to technology or reliable internet. But it’s important to provide education consistently; the neediest students are likely to suffer the most, she said.

“There's no real functioning or reopening of America without our schools being online and functioning as well,” Spellings said.

In a state whose brand is typically "We know better; we go our own way," why should lawmakers pay attention to other states?

Texas is competing with other states for talent, Luce said, and migrants to the state are often more educated than native Texans.

“We better compare how we compete, because if people stopped coming here — if they are attracted to other states, then we’re in trouble,” he said.

Spellings, who served as U.S. secretary of education during the George W. Bush administration and more recently, president of the University of North Carolina System, stressed that Texas has a lot of work to do in terms of education.

“The most successful state, the most successful nation will figure out how to close achievement gaps [and] how to educate everybody to much higher levels," Spellings said. "We’re a long way from that."

Spellings pointed to the state’s early reading level as a key area to improve.

“We’ve been going in the wrong direction for a decade,” Spellings said.

However, Texas is diverse, growing, has vast nature resources and many young people, she said. She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

“We have every asset in the world, and how we play this hand will determine whether Texas is the best place to live,” she said.

Be honest: Overall, how are we doing?

“I would say our brand and our pride outmatch our performance at the moment,” Spellings said. “When you look under the hood, we've got a lot of work to do.”

Luce said the blame lies on both public officials and the public itself. The public needs to be more informed and hold politicians accountable to issues, he said.

“There’s not sufficient demand,” he said. “The public is not sufficiently informed to hold them accountable for specific things that need to be done.”

What can ordinary Texans do?

Everyone can learn about their communities and advocate for local policy, Spellings said. She recommends that they analyze their communities through the Texas 2036 website and support the policies that the nonprofit identifies.

And if they disagree with those policies, she said, let them know.

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This event is presented by AT&T and Walmart and supported by Raise Your Hand Texas, Methodist Healthcare Ministries of South Texas and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Texas.

Tribune events are also supported through contributions from our founding investors and members. Though donors and corporate sponsors underwrite Texas Tribune events, they play no role in determining the content, panelists or line of questioning.

Disclosure: Margaret Spellings and Tom Luce have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, and Spellings is a member of the Tribune's board of directors. The Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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