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Border reformer

Q&A | The father of a pioneering education policy in Arizona is now bringing ideas for conservative reform to Washington as a congressman

Issue: "2012: The Year Ahead," Jan. 14, 2012

Trent Franks, R-Ariz., is serving his fifth term in the United States House of Representatives. Before that he was an education pioneer in the Arizona legislature (see WORLD, April 9, 2005). Here are edited excerpts of an interview conducted before a student audience at Patrick Henry College.

I've read that you owe a lot to pro-life parents. I was born with not only a cleft lip, but my skull didn't fuse together, and the roof of the mouth was missing. The doctors said, "Well, this baby isn't going to be ... is he going to survive? The best thing probably to do is to do away with him in a merciful manner." My parents had other ideas, and I'm very grateful to them. My father, an engineer, told the doctor that he would make a machine to feed me if he had to. Turns out they fed me with a pill cup and an eyedropper.

Nine operations? Doctors had to rebuild the entire roof of the mouth. By the grace of God, I can now perpetuate monotonic polysyllabic obfuscation and verbal circumlocution [spoken very fast] with the best of them.

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You're also grateful to Margie Freeman. She was my 3rd- and 4th-grade teacher. I don't want to be emotional here, but she always said to me, "You can do it!" She was there when I needed her.

Good parents, good teachers ... the bells and whistles that some schools add don't make much of a difference. Do you think that non-wealthy parents should be able to choose their children's teachers? In Arizona I was on a board raising money for K-12 scholarships. We worked very hard and raised $100,000-$150,000 a year. I remember one mother who was earning $8,000 a year and wanted so bad for her two children to go to a little Christian school that she was willing to give up $2,000 of that so they could go. We were able to help her, but I wished we could help more mothers like her.

Did you think of a way? One day in my shower I thought about taking some of the billions of dollars we spend in government-sponsored education. The idea hit me: What if we allowed people to contribute to a scholarship fund, and they would get a dollar-for-dollar reduction in taxes. That would save the state money, because it costs so much less to send a child to a private school than it does to a government school, and that would empower a lot of parents.

Then what happened? I walked out of the shower just as I was-not to scare anyone-and wrote down the idea. I thought it would end up in the Supreme Court. That indeed is what happened. We got it passed after three years and fought in court for 14 years. The ACLU and the NEA called it fiendishly clever, but it was really divinely simple. Government never touches the money. We have given a quarter of a million scholarships: It's the largest school choice program in the nation, and 92 percent of the kids are going to a Christian-based school, not because of the program, but because their parents wanted that to be that way.

The Supreme Court upheld it. A few months ago. We are working on efforts to expand it. I'm a supporter of anything that empowers parents, including vouchers, but I think this is a better mechanism because it doesn't cause the religious schools to be vulnerable to government pressures. It's private contributions going to a private charity to go to private scholarships for private individuals to go to the private school of their private choice. It privately drives the ACLU nuts because it's structured that way.

Have other states followed suit? Nine, either fully or partially, including Florida and Pennsylvania. Remember, it's contributing to a fund to send another person's child to the school of their parents' choice. It doesn't help you send your own child, but if we make these scholarships available it makes more available to others.

Let's turn to immigration. As you survey that long border between Arizona and Mexico, what do you recommend? I've been a supporter of the fence in particular places, but the bigger principle is what is important here. Border security is vital to national security. I'm a member of the Armed Services Committee and the Strategic Forces Committee, which deals with our nuclear profile. People say, "How can they get a nuclear weapon across the border?" My answer: "Maybe they put it in a barrel of marijuana." The idea that you couldn't bring a major weapon across the border is ludicrous.

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