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Dan Rather and Martin Rather on The 2017 Rather Prize, Public Education and Why “Giving Back” is The Family Mantra

Dan Rather and his grandson, Martin—a sophomore at Rice University—are packing in media interviews the day after awarding Lake Dallas Elementary School Katie Landaverde the 2017 Rather Prize at the opening of SXSW Edu on March 6. The $10,000 cash award was the result of the online competition challenging teachers, students and administrators to come up with ideas to improve Texas public schools.

The winning idea? Landaverde developed a program that would allow high school seniors to stretch their leadership muscles by teaching elementary school students about topics that interest them outside the traditional curriculum. And competition partner, Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership, kicked in an additional $10,000 to implement the program.

The competition, now in its second year, came as a result of what has become a sort of “coming of age” ritual in the Rather family.

“The idea for this came from my grandson, Martin who is now 19,” the elder Rather said. “When he was 17, his grandmother, my wife Jean who is a 6th generation Texan said, ‘Martin, what are you going to give back?’ He came back with this idea to establish a prize for the best idea to improve Texas schools. Jean and I both are products of Texas public schools all the way through. I thought it was a good idea.”

Rather, now 85, is busier than ever. Through his exploding News and Guts Facebook page, loyal fans and new audiences have embraced the veteran reporter as a voice of reason during what most pundits and viewers consider to be a chaotic post-election climate.

Verb caught up with the Rathers to talk about the state of public education, the future of social impact and how ideas, done right, can make a difference.

Public Education Meets Politics

Verb: The Rather Prize was conceived to help improve public education. What are your thoughts on our new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos and how she might change public schools in the U.S.?

DR: I think it’s important to know that a new education secretary can propose, but in the end Congress and the president decide. So I would encourage people to keep that in mind. We aren’t talking about evolutionary change. What’s being proposed is revolutionary change.

Now, there’s a long way to go. And one of the great things about America is that we have institutions dedicated to the idea of checks and balances. And for those people who feel appalled at the appointment of the new secretary, or have fears about the new secretary—and on the other end of the spectrum for those who have great hopes that she’ll be able implement these revolutionary ideas, I would just encourage the word, “steady.” Changes aren’t made overnight.

Verb: Yes, but it does seem that changes are happening very quickly these days.

DR: I want to make clear that I’m not suggesting that anybody who feels strongly about any direction ceases their activism. It’s very important in our system of government to have active citizen participation. I am asking them to remind themselves that we do have a system of checks and balances and we do have institutions built over our 200 plus year history that are in place.

It will be interesting to see whether the new secretary sees herself as a revolutionary figure. It’s my personal opinion that she is, based on her previous record. And if she does see herself as a revolutionary figure, will she be able to affect the revolutionary ideas that she’s proposing?

I’m a believer in public schools. I’m a product of public schools. It’s just my own experience that the key to the future is in educating future generations to adapt to the tremendous changes that are coming.  I’m not here to argue with people who believe in charter schools, school choice, private schools, parochial schools or what have you. But without the backbone and the spine of public schools, I would worry about the future of the country. – Dan Rather

Verb: Do you think that we’re moving, as country, away from government and more toward companies, individuals and groups finding ways to solve society’s biggest problems?

DR: The question in my mind is: how far does it go? I do believe in constant change and seeking improvement. What tools can we use? What can we do better? Having said that, the current undertow is definitely in the direction of what you mentioned. And up to a point, that could be pretty good. I want to emphasize could. But hasty, dramatic, not-thought-through ideas propelled by power can be dangerous. We saw that—an example would be— shortly after taking office, as the record shows, President Trump tried to make some dramatic changes in immigration policy and the courts ruled they were unconstitutional.

What we can learn from that—talking about drastic changes—in the whole societal view of education, there’s a danger the same thing could take place. And I’d say, with the new secretary, is that there’s a real question as to whether she’s up to this. Now, that’s a question she’ll be answering. I’ve talked to a number of people who’ve said ‘don’t underestimate her, she’s very organized, she’s very smart.’ But we will see as time goes on.