AUSTIN, Texas — As the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) kicked off their annual Policy Orientation for the Texas Legislature conference on Wednesday, the first day ended with a spirited discussion of school choice issues. TPPF Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Education Freedom Kent Grusendorf moderated the discussion between Lieutenant Governor-elect Dan Patrick and economist Art Laffer.
Grusendorf kicked off the discussion with a metaphor about competition. What would happen, he asked, if everyone who lived within a five mile radius of a grocery store was required to shop at that store, and no other? What would happen to the quality of customer service, merchandise selection, prices? It is easy to see why that model would not work for grocery stores, said Grusendorf, but that is how we have established the public education system in this country.
Laffer recently published a comprehensive study on what impact the expansion of school choice could have on the Texas economy, “The Texas Economy and School Choice,” and said that the positive results shown by his research were even better than he had expected.
“I had no idea when I started this, just how much evidence there was,” said Laffer, discussing how many ways Texas would benefit from adopting more comprehensive school choice programs. “Most of all, our kids will be really improved, and how can you not love that?”
A chief aspect of the plan supported by Laffer’s research involved what he called a “Taxpayer Savings Grant Program,” which would create a broad, statewide school choice program that would allow parents to take “a maximum of 60% of the average per-student cost for maintenance and operations in public school” and use the funds for private school tuition for their child.
Patrick, who will be officially sworn into office later this month, thanked the audience for supporting his election. “I see a lot of friends here,” he commented. Education and school choice are high priorities on his agenda. “My passion, my commitment this session,” he said, is to pass a comprehensive school choice bill.
In response to a question about how he was able to win the Hispanic vote, Patrick responded that he thought that the public was tired of politicians who “have a different message for different audiences.”
Just because you’re Hispanic, “doesn’t mean you don’t believe in the same issues,” said Patrick, and this is especially true for school choice. Hispanic families, like all Texas families, place a high priority on getting educational opportunities for their children.
Patrick noted that for the wealthy, they already have school choice. They can afford private school tuition, or they can afford to move to a highly ranked school district. The poor do not have these options: they cannot afford private school, cannot afford to move out to the suburbs and away from their jobs or bus routes, etc.
“It’s immoral to say to that parent that you’re not as equal as that other parent,” remarked Patrick on this issue of economic status limiting school choice.
Students with disabilities were a special concern for Patrick. “To say to a parent, I’m sorry but you have to keep your child in this public school, even though they’re not equipped to handle [your child’s] disability, is just shameful,” he said.
Laffer added that “the neat thing about choice, you don’t have to worry nearly as much” about finding new teaching methods and ways to help fill the needs of individual students, because “major, major innovations” get developed and brought into the schools. “Competition will provide,” he said, “not a one-size-fits-all system” but one tailored to the individual needs, learning style, and speed of each student.
Former Texas Senator Phil Gramm was in the audience. “We won the debate,” said Gramm, pointing out that anyone who has seen the movie Waiting for Superman understood the issue of school choice. “We won the moral debate, we won the intellectual debate, but we’re losing the political debate…we are not winning the political debate in the legislatures.”
Patrick responded that he thought that the current political environment in Texas meant that school choice legislation had a good chance to pass. “Texas is at a unique point in history,” he said. “We have the majority in the Senate, we have the majority in the House, and we ought to be able to pass whatever we want.”
“Support [for school choice] should be widespread,” continued Patrick, and stated that he believed that voters in the state understood the importance of school choice “I think there is support…and I’m determined” to pass school choice legislation.”
State Senator-elect Konni Burton (R-Colleyville) attended the discussion and spoke to Breitbart Texas afterwards. “I campaigned on school choice in my district,” said Burton. “It’s something that I’m very supportive of and will work towards [next session].” Burton was especially interested in seeing a bill that would create Taxpayer Savings Grants, such as the bill that Sen. Donna Campbell (R-New Braunfels) has submitted.
[Disclosure: Sarah Rumpf was previously employed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.]
Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter @rumpfshaker.