Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman, who advocates the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for use in private schools, was among those who testified Tuesday at a rowdy House committee hearing on school vouchers.
Friedman, a Stanford University economist, was invited to speak at the House Public Education Committee by its chairman, Rep. Kent Grusendorf. Grusendorf, R-Arlington, has filed a bill that would establish laws authorizing government money for low-income parents who transfer their children from public to private schools.
Such a system is commonly referred to as "school vouchers" or "school choice." Grusendorf calls them "freedom scholarships."
Friedman said he believes the American public education system has worsened over time, particularly in poor areas, and blames what he calls a government monopoly and powerful teachers unions.
"The government provides food stamps but it doesn't run grocery stores," he said.
Friedman called Grusendorf's proposal the nation's most broad attempt to use vouchers for public education.
"It's the system, not the people" making children fail, Friedman said, and competition would demand improvement in all schools.
The audience often erupted in applause and let out loud hoots when supporters voiced agreeable statements. More than 100 people signed up to testify.
Dozens of children and parents supporting vouchers wore bright blue T-shirts declaring: "school choice works."
But there were vocal opponents, too, including dozens of educators and Sam Smoot, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network. She's opposed to using taxpayer money in schools that don't have to follow the same laws meant to ensure equality and separation of church and state.
Texas State Teachers Association President Donna New-Haschke said it's not the time to try vouchers with nearly $3 billion in proposed budget cuts to public education.
"We simply cannot afford using tax dollars to fund the interest of private schools when our students are being told to wait for new textbooks, our teachers are facing cuts in health insurance and highly touted programs like master math teachers programs are on the chopping block," New-Haschke said.
On the other side, Peggy Venable of Citizens for a Sound Economy said she was disgusted that teachers appeared to be more interested in their own financial future than children's education.
"I believe that parents deserve the freedom to choose," Venable said. If public schools fear mass exodus of students because of vouchers, that proves there is a problem, she said.
Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, said he was concerned that the bill did not prohibit religious or gender discrimination.
Grusendorf said it prohibited discrimination against race and national orientation. Also, he said, critics must trust parents to select a school that's best for their children.
William Bryant, a pastor from Dallas, said vouchers would empower parents, particularly minority or poor parents.
"We say yes to it because we believe it's time for real freedom in education for all of the children in Texas," he said.
Texas lawmakers, under pressure from teachers unions and 1,100 school districts, have consistently rejected legislation calling for a voucher experiment in selected urban counties.
This session is likely to be different in the GOP-dominated Statehouse, however, because Republicans House Speaker Tom Craddick, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Gov. Rick Perry all support a pilot voucher program.
Under Grusendorf's legislation, the program for children of low income families would be limited to the state's largest school districts, where enrollment tops 40,000 and a majority of students are eligible for the federal free and reduced priced lunch programs.
Eleven public school districts would be initially affected: Aldine, Alief, Houston, Pasadena, Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Brownsville, El Paso and Ysleta.
In 2005, local school boards could vote to allow any district to participate.
The private schools that accept the vouchers would be required to make tests scores public, a provision critics said is bad because the public has no say in what kind of test.
Public schools would continue to receive some funding for students who choose to use a voucher, including about 10 percent of the value of the voucher. Private schools would receive 90 percent of the voucher or the school's average annual cost per student, whichever is less.