Partying for School Choice on Milton Friedman’s 101st Birthday

David Dewhurst's gift to school choice fans on Friedman's birthday: He'll skip the two-thirds rule to pass a voucher bill in 2015.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaks at Americans for Prosperity-Texas' school choice event at the Acton School of Business in Austin Wednesday.
Patrick Michels
Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst speaks at Americans for Prosperity-Texas' school choice event at the Acton School of Business in Austin Wednesday.

If you’re anything like me, you woke up this morning with a little extra spring in your step. The birds seemed to sing a little sweeter, the coffee brewed a little stronger. Because July 31 is a great day for America—today would’ve been free-market hero Milton Friedman’s 101st birthday. How did you celebrate? Maybe you treated yourself to a haircut, or splurged on a spa treatment and soaked up the cucumber and freedom.

Or maybe, like me, you celebrated with Sen. Donna Campbell and the Texas Public Policy Foundation, for a school choice jam session in the Capitol Grill. Maybe you followed that up with Americans for Prosperity’s school choice ice cream social this afternoon.

And maybe now you’re a little jealous.

Those are just a few of the ways school choice fans—folks who want to see way more publicly funded, privately run alternatives to the traditional public school system—celebrated Friedman Fest 2013.

It’s funny timing for Texas school choice fans to celebrate, so soon after Senate Republican leaders’ promises for “taxpayer savings grants” fell so completely flat in the House. Sen. Dan Patrick’s Senate Bill 2 will expand the state’s charter school program, but it’s a far more modest change than what Patrick had hoped for.

Back in the days of James Leininger’s San Antonio voucher program, education free-marketeers really had something to rally around. In 2013, even with such a strong Republican majority in the Legislature, 103 House members signed on to an amendment prohibiting public spending (or tax credits) on private schools. So how do you celebrate the eternal word of Milton Friedman in a time like this?

By repeating the arguments Friedman made 50 years ago, for starters, and decking them out in red, white and blue. As Donna Campbell reminded the room at the TPPF event: “Folks, we’re in Texas. We’re in America. Choice. Shouldn’t parents have the freedom to choose the best school for their child?”

Sen. Donna Campbell
Patrick Michels
Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) speaks at the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s school choice event on Milton Friedman’s birthday.

Over the lunch hour today, Campbell re-explained her taxpayer savings grant bill to a crowd that was already on board. Tom Currah, a senior adviser in the comptroller’s office, explained how the state calculated how much voucher bills cost or save the state.

Lindsay Gustafson, with the Texas Classroom Teachers Association until recently, reprised her role as foil for TPPF’s school choice crowd—”My boss calls me the piñata at these things”—wondering how private schools would be accountable for how they spend public money. The school choice argument is rooted in the fear that our school system today is failing, and Gustafson said there are plenty of measures, like scores on the NAEP test, to show today’s schools are doing pretty well.

Peggy Venable, the Texas director for Americans for Prosperity, couldn’t let that one go: “One of the tragedies of our system,” she said, “is that we can sit here and say that our public schools are overall doing very well.” Venable reminded the room of the kids trapped in failing public schools, the reason vouchers are “the civil rights issue of our generation.”

Venable was the only one who mentioned Friedman’s legacy, calling him an “amazing, amazing man,” and fondly recalling his visit to a TPPF event years ago. At her group’s ice cream social a few hours later, Uncle Miltie’s presence was strong.

AFP’s event was at the Acton School of Business—the school founded by Jeff Sandefer, Rick Perry’s higher education visionary—across the river from downtown Austin. A smaller crowd, including a lot of the same folks, milled around the bright, professional-looking entry room.

I asked Venable what makes celebrating Friedman’s 101st birthday different from his 100th, where she sees progress in the school choice cause when the House seems so set against vouchers. She said technology and distance learning are the new variables that will force a major shift in the public education system

“I’m fairly confident that education won’t look like it did years ago,” she said. “When markets are allowed to work, we can’t really know where they might take us.”

Republican Rep. Tony Dale got the crowd’s attention to share his memories of that House vote against vouchers—and how shocked he was that just 43 Republicans voted for school choice. “Obviously, we’ve got more work to do.”

The guest of honor walked in as Dale was winding down, and Venable introduced Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, “who’s really been fighting for freedom issues for a long time.”

“I don’t know why, but there’s this blind, blind stubborn resistance to school choice,” Dewhurst told the crowd. He recalled donating to the private voucher program in Edgewood ISD, how the schoolchildren in San Antonio would run up and grab his leg.

And he made a promise for the 2015 session, if he’s back in the Senate to enjoy it, suggesting he’d bend the Senate rules the same way he did this year to ensure abortion restrictions passed: “I’m determined to make school choice a reality. And to do that, we may have to adjust the two-thirds rule in the Senate.”

Staff writer Patrick Michels covers school reform and crime for the Observer.

Published at 6:57 pm CST