Public Education and Why “Giving Back” is The Rather Family Mantra

imageby Jennifer Robenalt

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.


Giving Back and Social Impact

Verb: When your grandmother asked you that question, “What are going to give back?” how did you land on public education?

MR: It really came out of discussion with the family. You have a lot of ideas that always bounce around. So really finding something that I think was practical and doable was really important for us. Even after having the idea and having a couple of meetings just inside our own family about it, I didn’t think it could really get off the ground. I didn’t realize it was going to turn out being what it ended up being. Even just asking a single teacher or a single student to submit an idea to a brand new organization seemed far fetched.

But we got very very lucky with these partners—Rice University and their Center for Civic Leadership and SXSW Edu. I think we have the two of the strongest educational partners in the state of Texas. Having that kind of credibility, I think allows people to submit their ideas.

Verb: What do you think about the paradox between what’s happening in our post-election world, and the research that suggests that around 70% of millennials are really looking for career paths that involve social impact and purposeful work? Do you see any disparity there?

MR: Younger people, we do a lot of soft or indirect ways of social good. You look at the #boycottuber movement. Uber is an incredibly important and popular and significant app and form of transportation for people of my my generation. But based on something that happened in politics, people very quickly were taking it off of their phones. Even with the professions that younger people go into, with the ways that they vote, there’s really such a passion for making sure that everything has an impact and that you can do more indirect social good.

Verb: Why did you decide to conduct a prize competition as opposed to, say, doing a fundraiser for a school or gather a large donation for an education non-profit?

MR: My hope in creating the Rather Prize is that it could fill the underutilized space of rewarding teachers and students for their great ideas, and to share them across Texas.

Currently, it can be difficult for unique ideas coming from Texas classrooms to rise up and have a statewide presence given the inherent educational bureaucracy. And so I hope that we can help to provide space for those great ideas to flourish and be heard. – Martin Rather

Verb:  What do you think the roles of companies are in tackling big societal challenges and leading social innovation?

MR: I think that companies have an obligation to their consumers to be participants in social innovation, and consumers have an obligation to be aware of which companies are involved in the issues that they care about. I know that personally, I try and support companies who share my personal values, and I know that many of my generation feel the same way.

Verb: How do you think your generation will go about solving important problems in society? More companies stepping up? Non-profits? Government? Any thoughts on this?

MR: I think that many people of my generation will look to more government programs to solve important problems in society. One of the debates that I see the country having as we move forward is whether or not we want to have a more socialist-type or free-market economy. I know that there are many strong voices on both sides here, and I think that the debate will come to the forefront once those of my generation have positions of power.

Verb: Who are a couple of your social innovation role models?

Firstly, Dr. Doug Schuler of Rice University. He teaches a Social Entrepreneurship class that I am currently taking. I cannot think of a class where I have been able to learn more practical concepts, many of which affect my daily consumerism habits. Additionally, in a project that fits in closely with what we try to do with the Rather Prize, H-E-B founder Charles Butt does a lot of great work here in Texas with Texas education, and runs a fantastic supermarket!

Verb: Why did Katie win this year’s prize?

MR: Katie’s idea to create morning workshops for elementary school students is so practical, so implementable, so sharable across the state that it is a natural fit for the Rather Prize. I think that her idea is going to demonstrate the power of school district synergy- having high schools and elementary schools work well together- and encourage many of those high school students to become teachers themselves as they improve the minds of those elementary school students. We are so pleased that she won this year’s Prize, and we look forward to working with her and her colleagues in Lake Dallas.