UTSA Civic Engagement Summit

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak at the  UTSA Civic Engagement Summit, hosted by the UTSA Center for Civic Engagement. My speech was entitled “Building a Culture of Engagement in Public Schools.” Below are my prepared remarks:

Thomas Jefferson said that every citizen has a responsibility to be a “participator in the government of affairs.” This Civic_engagement_summit_flyer_2015participation necessarily requires what he called a “more general diffusion of knowledge.”

The debate about public education has become one about workforce development. While this must be a vital component of our public education system, we need to remember that the public education system in America was originally seen as necessary for the survival of the republic- a recognition that the republic can only be governed by well-informed citizens who engage in debates about public affairs.

I don’t know about you, but my recollection of discussing current events in high school includes one of two scenarios: 1) a sleepy-eyed recitation of the Preamble of the Constitution; or, 2) a teacher telling one student that she is anti-gun control and another that he is pro gun-control and making them contrive a debate on the subject. A version of this scene is playing out at every public school I have walked into: rural and urban, privileged and underserved.

Our understanding of the nation’s history and the philosophical underpinnings of our great debates must be informed by something better than distilling controversial issues into lists of pros and cons or mind-numbing memorization.

To say the least, we are falling short of Thomas Jefferson’s vision.

Students are leaving school soured on exploration and civil discourse. And then they see institutional failure everywhere:

They see Enron and 9/11 and the financial crisis and government shutdowns.

They see crippling student loan debt with bleak job opportunities.

They see their parents and neighbors who are police officers and firefighters mired in a prolonged stalemate with the City in the collective bargaining process.

They see a hyper-partisan media culture that rewards horrific remarks about menstrual cycles over serious public debates about nuclear treaties with Iran.

There is a gentleman I know who thinks there is a better way. Dr. Christopher Phillips is a fellow at Harvard University and the National Constitution Center. And he had a great idea.

He said that debate can lead to discovery if a diverse group of people come together to explore current events, constitutional controversies, and philosophical questions only if the discussion unfolds in a civilized and respectful way.

He formed a nonprofit called Democracy Café to fulfill this mission, which I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors for some time now.

Today, you can go to public libraries or coffee shops in Oakland or Milwaukee or Newark, and you can find groups of people participating in what he calls “Constitution Cafes.”

The concept behind Constitution Café is relatively simple: there is a facilitator who prompts discussion about a constitutional issue- say, the War Powers Act. Small groups discuss those issues for 30 minutes. And after the small groups have their conversations, they report out to the larger group in a discussion moderated by the facilitator.

I know when I first heard about it, I thought, “what group of nerds does this on a Friday night?”

It turns out that Dr. Phillips understands Jefferson’s vision quite well. And so does a brilliant and innovative educator named Patti Reyes.

Patti Reyes is a coordinator for curriculum and instruction at East Central Independent School District. Now, East Central is a mostly rural district here in Bexar County.

She saw that Constitution Café could be a way to get students jazzed about the issues they were learning about in school.

So she started hosting Constitution Cafes in the mornings at East Central High School. And dozens of students would arrive. They would talk about the implications of privacy on social media. They would talk about free speech. These are issues that are esoteric in a textbook but come alive when they are described.

It started out in the mornings before school. But the demand grew and more students wanted to participate. East Central ISD Superintendent Roland Toscano and East Central High School Principal Shane McKay saw that they could integrate this programming with the school day.

The Constitution Cafes became part of the school day, so that reduced-price lunch students and those that rode the bus could participate.

The students are hungry to be engaged, and there are long waiting lists.

The last Constitution Café, which I had the pleasure of attending had more than 320 students attend. We discussed the Affordable Care Act. And the students visibly came alive at the knowledge that we cared what they had to say.

There have been some preliminary findings at East Central: students who participate in Constitution Café are more likely to go to college and they are more likely to be ready for college.

But the most important finding from a civic engagement standpoint it qualitative- and that is that the students who participate in these Constitution Cafes don’t regurgitate what they have heard on Fox News or MSNBC when they discuss current events. They think about public policy and they think about it critically.

This paradigm shift has long-term consequences.

My boss is Councilman Ron Nirenberg and civic engagement is his passion. In fact, at this very summit, he called for moving municipal elections from May until November to increase participation. He spent almost a decade working at the Annenberg Public Policy Center engaging students on a wide range of issues and they would study the long-term effect.

The findings were clear: two semesters of engagement in schools yielded higher participation four years out and eight years out.

Our public school systems should be positioning students to compete in an increasingly globalized and digital economy. But we should never forget that we cannot have a truly democratic society without a focus on civic literacy.

Constitution Day 2015: A Conversation With The Constitution

Last week, I had the opportunity to address an assembly of East Central High School students who were participating in a Constitution Day event called “A Conversation with the Constitution.” We used the Constitution Cafe format to engage students on the constitutional issues surrounding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I have had the pleasure of serving on the Board of Directors of Democracy Cafe for the past several months and am excited about continuing and expanding our efforts to engage students on current events and the Constitution. Below are the remarks I prepared for the event:

The American Constitution sets the rules and establishes the field upon which all of our political battles are waged. 12004912_639918656151174_6325504966234393744_nSince the Founding Era, one of those battles- and perhaps the most fundamental philosophical debate- has been about the proper scope of the federal government’s authority to regulate a wide variety of activities in the United States.

We tend to think and talk about this debate as one about civil liberties and equality- from slavery to Emancipation, from Jim Crow to Civil Rights. But since the turn of the 20th century- as the United States rose to become a great industrial leader- the proper role of the federal government has been central to Supreme Court cases and controversies about economics.

Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate commerce between the states. When I hear that, I think of a train hauling materials across the Red River from Texas into Oklahoma. For 150 years, the Supreme Court viewed it just that way. The Court would uphold laws addressing a train crossing state lines with materials, but strike down many laws on what it considered local economic matters. For example, if I grow cotton on my farm and sell it at the market a few miles down the road, the Court said that doesn’t touch interstate commerce. Which seems sensible.

But then a Great Depression swept across the nation, and people were desperate for the newly elected President Franklin Roosevelt to provide them with relief. So he pushed for a bold legislative package known as the New Deal, which gave the federal government the power to use emergency measures to provide more economic opportunity to the American people.

The chief problem with the New Deal became that the Supreme Court kept striking down the laws! Saying that the federal government was overreaching its granted power. People were outraged, and after President Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936, the Supreme Court finally relented. The court began granting Congress and the federal government more and more power to regulate the national economy, and this trend continued and accelerated through the 1930s, 40s, 50s and 60s.

Before the New Deal, the Supreme Court said the cotton I grow on my farm doesn’t touch interstate commerce. After the New Deal, the Court reasoned that the cotton I grow on my farm impacts the national price of cotton and does touch interstate commerce. This same line of reasoning applied to every industry.

Health care is no exception. For the last fifty years, medical breakthroughs and technological innovation have improved quality of care and extended our life expectancies. As with most technological breakthroughs, not all of the fruits have been enjoyed equally.

A great lot of people have been bothered that the richest country in the world didn’t provide adequate health care for all of its citizens. Presidents- all Democrats and, yes, even a Republican- have tried to provide a universal system of health care for all Americans for the better part of a century. And until recently, every president failed.

But five years ago, President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act into law. The Affordable Care Act- also known as Obamacare- financially penalized any citizen who refused to purchase health insurance and could afford to. This law was very controversial for several reasons, but the most important constitutional debate became about whether the commerce clause gave the federal government the power to penalize an individual for his or her refusal to purchase a product.

On one side, people argued that the commerce clause gives the federal government the authority to regulate what people do, but not what the do not do. They argue that “Congress has the power to regulate commerce, not compel it,” and that allowing such a penalty paves the way for a slippery slope and that one day the federal government could require us all to eat broccoli for dinner. I know that I am not the only one in this room who would find this a bit unappetizing.

The folks on the other side have a point too. They say the federal government should have the power to compel each of us to purchase health insurance because of the total impact that the uninsured have on the national health care system. Every one of us who drives a car is required to have auto insurance, so why shouldn’t health insurance be treated the same? They say that providing adequate health care is such a pressing public policy priority that the penalty is definitely connected to interstate commerce.

While the Supreme Court has made a series of decisions upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the debate over the extent of the powers granted to the federal government by the commerce clause is far from over.

It is actually a debate that is never supposed to be fully settled. At the Constitutional Convention almost 230 years ago, they knew that we would be sitting in rooms like this with groups like this discussing how the issues of our time fit into the framework they adopted. So let’s get to it! Happy Constitution Day!

Transportation Options Save Lives

The debate in San Antonio about the integration of transportation networking companies like Uber and Lyft into our market has been presented as a false dichotomy between ensuring public safety and embracing innovation.

A new study recently published by researchers at the Temple University Fox School of Business found a drop in drunk driving deaths in California after Uber entered the market. From the abstract:

Photo credit: KENS

Using a difference-in-difference approach to exploit a natural experiment, the entry of two Uber services into markets in California between 2009 and 2014, we find a significant drop in the rate of homicides after the introduction of Uber…These results underscore the coupling of increased availability with cost savings which are necessary to exploit the public welfare gains offered by the sharing economy.

San Antonio’s CBS affiliate KENS-5 ran a story on the study and quoted Councilman Nirenberg:

That’s the public safety issue in my mind is the lack of transportation options in San Antonio, people having to get behind the wheel of their car to get home,

Councilman Nirenberg Calls for Year-Round Stage 1 Water Use

Councilman Nirenberg called for year-round Stage 1 water use yesterday. From the press release:

On Tuesday, Councilman Nirenberg filed a memo calling for the establishment of Stage 1 water use year-round under normal conditions. Stage 1 water rules limit the use of irrigation or sprinkler systems to once per week and currently trigger when the 10-day rolling average of the Edwards Aquifer level drops to 660 feet mean sea level at the J-17 Bexar index well. 

“The cheapest, most available water is the water we do not use,” said District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg. sprinkler-head-blackburnsprinklers“As SAWS pursues an ‘all-of-the-above’ approach to long-term water security that includes aquifer storage and recovery and regional water sourcing, a continued commitment to conservation must continue to play a central role.”

 The San Antonio City Council will consider a new rate design for San Antonio Water System (SAWS) customers this fall. The proposed rate design developed by SAWS staff, an appointed 17- member Rate Advisory Committee, and consulting firm Black and Veatch, acknowledges that conservation will be the linchpin of San Antonio’s long-term water security. The proposed rate design doubles the number of residential rate tiers to encourage less discretionary use.

“Maintaining once per week outdoor watering is a proven best water management practice,” said State Representative Lyle Larson, a longtime leader on state and local water issues. “SAWS is looked upon as a leader in water conservation throughout the nation. Implementing a year-round once weekly outdoor watering policy would be a perfect next step in the utility’s conservation strategy.”

Councilman Nirenberg’s memo was co-signed by Council members Gallagher, Lopez, Warrick, and Trevino.

Municipal Broadband

One of Councilman Nirenberg’s pressing agenda items is a comprehensive digital strategy for the City of San Antonio and, particularly, the expansion of the City’s municipal fiber network. Here is an article that recently appeared in The Rivard Report outlining his views. Below is testimony he delivered to the Bexar County Commissioners Court on Tuesday:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today on an issue that has the opportunity to transform our community.

The digital revolution—driven largely by broadband and mobile data deployment—touches every aspect of our lives. As the international economy evolves, so too must our commitment to evolve with it.

Last month, Judge Wolff laid out an aggressive agenda for expanding our burgeoning technology sector, with a commitment to public investment and to helping the private sector create a digital ecosystem.

Last June, I initiated a comprehensive digital strategy for the City of San Antonio in that same spirit. This digital strategy will include specific recommendations on:

  • Accelerating private investment in digital infrastructure;
  • Bridging the digital divide;
  • Expanding mobile data capacity; and, most importantly,
  • Utilizing our municipal fiber network.

Communities nationwide are using publicly owned fiber networks to meet their specific needs. We have unique assets that give our community a unique opportunity. Two decades ago, CPS Energy invested in strands of fiber lining our community. Many of these strands have lain dormant ever since. While state law prohibits the residential sale of broadband service by municipalities, we can provide such service to public institutions.

Imagine connections between our pillar institutions: Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, UHS, UTSA, UTHSCSA, the Alamo Colleges, and our school districts. Such connections have the potential to expand our education and workforce development efforts, improve health care, and attract the bioscience, advanced manufacturing, and cybersecurity companies central to our economic development strategy.

This is within our grasp. Minor capital investments will allow us to upgrade the municipal network so that it can provide the support that institutions would expect of commercial grade broadband carriers. We have made substantial progress in obtaining those investments.

Last week, the City Council approved an agreement that I believe will create a revenue stream that we can dedicate to making technology make government more effective and efficient, including municipal broadband. On Thursday, I will be asking City Council to support additional investment as a line item in the City of San Antonio FY2016 budget.

I share this Court’s commitment to a digitally vibrant community and look forward to forging a long-term partnership so that this dream can become a reality.

I thank you for your consideration of this resolution and urge its passage. Thank you.