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.
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Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst.
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.”

Patrick Michels is a reporter for the Texas Observer and a former legislative intern. He has been a staff writer and web editor at the Dallas Observer, and a former editor of the Texas Independent. He has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University, a master's in photojournalism from the University of Texas at Austin, and is a competitive eating enthusiast.

  • Grumpmaster_Zz

    Friedman makes a fine argument, except for a single failing. School choice is fine…as long as the alternate schools are NOT religious schools. As the 1st Amendment notes, not a penny of the public purse should go to subsidize religion or religious education. Since Texas is part of the Union, under the organizing principle of the US Constitution, using public money to support religion is not an option.

    • teeky2

      Public dollars already support the Gulen Muslim schools in many states. You asked for it, you got it.
      Now live with it.

      • unclejeems

        A couple of things wrong there. Your comment assumes that Muslim schools, as opposed to so-called Christian schools, are bad. The particular Muslim schools of which you speak are borne of a movement that is pacifist and advocates interfaith interaction. Frankly, I’d rather have my child attend an institution that supports those principles, instead of some knee-jerk, backwater outfit that denies evolution and climate change, and claims that the American founders were all fundamentalist Baptists.

        The other thing is that if you’re going to start funding religious schools with public funds, then you’re going to have to publicly support schools of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Wiccan, Zoroastrian and even atheist extraction. So get ready–you’ll be the one who has to live with it.

        • SoberMoney

          Teeky seems to imply that Muslim schools are bomb making, suicide training schools. It tells us where he is at.

    • Jed

      i’m not sure the argument is friedman’s, but i AM sure this isn’t the only problem with it.

  • Rosco O’Toole

    You can choose whatever school you want your kid to go to. But you
    should still be fully liable for all of your locality’s public school
    taxes. No public money should go to subsidize private for profit schools of any
    kind. Perry and Dewhurst got their marching orders from by A.L.E.C. and the Koch Heads.
    The voucher game is just another attempt to privatize another segment of
    the government. and attack public education.

  • Eric Boyer

    We have school choice, why should taxpayers fund a religious education? Ask yourself, how much of your tax money do you want to see funding a religious school that opposes everything you stand for, including democratic systems of government, and considers you and your children infidels? You will be amazed at what kinds of “schools” will be born if the public funds are offered up like big bunches of juicy grapes. Or will we only pay tuition to the “normal” church schools, and who decides?

    • teeky2

      Why not, Eric? We fund charters, and lots of people disagree with those—-usually public school teachers. As one of those, I guess I’d support religious schools just as quickly as I’d support any other charter or private, right? You can’t have it both ways, you know.

      • Jed

        good point.

        anyone concerned with equal opportunity should support none of the above.

  • SoberMoney

    Progressives and liberals need to acknowledge that in extremist red states like Texas, public education has already been hijacked by the religious right and privatization fanatic politicians. The right wing dominated Texas Lege (one of many states) increasingly cuts public service budgets, making public education a failed system. It is not much different than watching our first black Democrat US president betray the non-idolatry liberals with his corporate welfare bailouts and his high tech domestic police state.

    The left needs to mass organize a new privately-managed progressive multicultural intelligent education system and embrace the voucher system and take their taxes back from the compulsive liars and public service hypocrites that now run both political parties. Reps and Dems are both increasingly getting their campaign monies from the corporate sector, whose primary agenda is too pilfer our taxes dollars to commoditize everything in our lives (including education).

    Political activism is increasingly not working anymore. The two party political system is now a failed state. It’s time for the left to stop pretending we still live in a democracy.

    Turn the economic tables on the mindless privatization freaks.

  • SoberMoney

    And don’t kid yourselves. Many of the public schools in rural Texas are already run by the religious right.

    Wimberley is a perfect example; I believe many if not most of the WISD principals and the school board members go to the same evangelical right wing church.

    If that is not true about WISD, post a clarification with data and facts.

  • Mas San Antonio

    One key element missing here, and what the legislatures don’t know, is that who is
    going to monitor private and charter schools? As it is now, the Texas
    Education Commission doesn’t. The Texas Private School Accreditation
    Commission is required to oversee the some 14 accreditation agencies, but fail miserably. So until the accountability issues are corrected, parents really will not
    know that the school their child is enrolled in has met accreditation
    standards. I have first hand knowledge of this and know that TEPSAC does
    not monitor the integrity of these agencies. As a matter of fact, some
    members of these agencies are TEPSAC commissioners themselves. For
    instance, Barbara Porter is a Standards Committee member for the Texas Alliance
    of Accredited Private Schools, TAAPS, AND is a TEPSAC commissioner. This
    is obviously a conflict of interest when it comes to the responsibility of
    TEPSAC monitoring accreditation agencies. As it stands, NO ONE has
    oversight responsibility to ensure TEPSAC monitors these agencies as they
    should. No one at the state or federal level. Parents do not know this, and I am sure many educational leaders don’t either.

    As I said before, I have first hand knowledge of how one accreditation agency
    re-accredited a private school in the Houston area, and whose accreditation
    report is very suspicious to say the least. TEPSAC was notified of this and they did nothing. How many others out there get accredited and shouldn’t? So before we turn to the private sector, a
    closer look needs to be taken, regarding who, and how well these schools are monitored.
    I am not for more government, but the Texas Education Commission washed
    their hands of that responsibility in 1986, leaving it to an organization who
    does not have the means or integrity to make private schools accountable.

    If you want to know details about how inept TEPSAC is; respond to this post with
    your contact information. I have documentation go substantiate this
    claim. You would be appalled at what you would see.