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James Madison Institute dinner celebrates limited government and school choice

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The James Madison Institute 2015 Annual Dinner was a celebration of “The Florida Story: A Lasting Legacy.” More than 300 politicos and supporters attended the dinner Tuesday night on the campus of Florida State University.

JMI was founded in 1987 by former FSU President Stanley Marshall to advance the limited government philosophy of its namesake, James Madison.

“There are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by the gradual and silent encroachment by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations,” was one of Marshall’s favorite Madison quotes. Marshall had served as president when the FSU campus was rocked by antiwar protests.

Since setting up shop in Tallahassee, JMI has walked the hallways of the state Capitol explaining the ramification of different policy proposals. JMI doesn’t lobby on behalf of specific legislation but strives to engage and educate the public. It produces studies advancing free market solutions, provides testimony at public hearings and serves as a clearinghouse of conservative thought.

“We’re not just a think tank but a do tank,” said JMI CEO Bob McClure in his welcoming remarks while highlighting how JMI seeks to foster camaraderie among like-minded spirits and to encourage the “next generation’s” involvement in public policy discussions.

“I feel like the warm up to the warm up of the grand event. I feel like the Polk County jug warming up for U2 and the Rolling Stones with Jeff Atwater and Stephen Hayes (in the wings),” joked Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

“We can’t forget how fortunate we are to live in a state that despite being the most diverse and the third most populous we still have an unabashedly pro-business pro-free enterprise pro property rights state government in charge,” said Putnam to a round of applause.

And although JMI may not lobby on any specific legislation, “The Florida Story” theme for the night was a celebration of the education reforms started under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The keynote speech by CFO Jeff Atwater was a walk through the history of and results of the A+ School Accountability Plan, the different school choice scholarship plans started under the Bush administration and onset of digital learning or virtual schools.

Atwater explained how he had first heard of Bush’s proposed reforms at a PTA meeting and when asked by the school’s principal if he would help to fight them he said he planned to run for the state Legislature to vote to enact them.

He then told the audience that Florida school student performance went from 45th in the nation in reading when Bush introduced his plan to 8th.  And high school graduation rates increased by 25 percent — the second best improvement in the nation over a 10-year period.

“Everyone of these initiatives that has advanced the opportunities for our children to succeed in the world is under assault as we speak right now,” said Atwater. “Will we stay for this fight? Will we understand the consequences and the outcomes that will come if any of these are chipped away — heaven forbid.”

Along with Putnam and Atwater numerous lawmakers enjoyed dinner with JMI members. State Sen. Garrett Richter led a cadre that included Department of Economic Opportunity Secretary Jesse Panuccio and House members Larry Metz, Keith Perry and Dan Raulerson. Also in attendance were former state Reps. Don Brown and Pat Neal.

FOX News’ Stephen Hayes provided the entertainment for the evening by answering questions from the audience in an interview with McClure.

Hayes drew gasps from the audience when he said Rachel Maddow would be the one MSNBC personality he would pick to be stranded on a deserted island with.

“You have some explaining to do,” quipped McClure.

They are old friends, said Hayes, providing some insight into Washington’s politico/media bubble. Hayes said he wouldn’t pick Chuck Todd because he once worked for Todd and since the two are both Irish they would probably bring along too much beer and things would just get out of hand.

It was a night of kindred spirits to talk policy — the sort James Madison would approve of — and share a few laughs.

Former House Speaker Allan Bense closed the evening by announcing JMI plans to open the Dr. J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options. The center’s mission will be to continue the fight for school choice or, as Atwater put it, to prevent the chipping away of any of the education reforms implemented in the past 17 years.

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