James Leininger is teaching Texas schoolchildren a sad civics lesson this year: When wealthy special interests can't get lawmakers to give them what they want, they just buy new lawmakers.
The San Antonio businessman has already given or pledged more than $2.5 million to back Republican candidates who support his obsession: tax-funded tuition vouchers for private and religious schools. About $1.8 million of that total is funding the campaigns of just five state House candidates in the Republican primary March 7. Those five are challenging GOP incumbents who dared to vote against a Leininger-backed voucher scheme in the 2005 Legislature.
Dr. Leininger says his contributions are an "open record." Yet he is funneling most of the money through brand-new political action committees he created. Researchers had to dig into campaign finance reports to track the money from him to the PACs and then to consultants supporting the campaigns of pro-voucher candidates.
Dr. Leininger wants to hide his fingerprints. After all, most Texans don't take kindly to one-man special interests trying to buy elections.
But the fact is that Dr. Leininger is almost single-handedly financing and running the campaigns of those five handpicked candidates. Frankly, candidates should be embarrassed when more than 90 percent of the money supporting their campaigns comes from just one man.
Of course, Dr. Leininger has spent millions of dollars over the past decade trying to buy a Legislature that will pass a voucher scheme. In 1998, he even began funding a pilot voucher program in San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District.
Schools in Edgewood, one of the state's poorest districts, have improved over the past decade. But that progress began long before the voucher program was in place. In 1993, the Legislature moved to equalize funding between poor and wealthy school districts. According to Texas Education Agency records, Edgewood had nine "low-performing" schools that year. By 1997, Edgewood no longer had any low-performing schools. Two schools had even managed a to earn a "recognized" rating. That was a year before the Leininger-funded voucher program was created.
You have to wonder whether Dr. Leininger ever really understood the challenges faced by Edgewood's students. If he cared, he would ask the teachers and parents of students who attended schools there. He would learn about the crumbling buildings, overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers and the lack of library and technology resources before school funding was equalized. Challenges remain, to be sure, but they are not so steep as before 1993.
Dr. Leininger, however, arrogantly declares that the solution to such challenges is to take millions of dollars from neighborhood public schools to subsidize private and religious schools. To most Texans, that's just nonsense, which is why the Legislature has refused year after year to pass a voucher program.
Unfortunately, students in other states haven't been so lucky. Voucher programs in Florida, Ohio and Wisconsin have siphoned tens of millions of dollars from public schools. What taxpayers got in return were private schools that could pick and choose which students to accept. They got private schools that didn't have to meet state standards set for public schools. And they got private schools that eagerly took tax-funded vouchers for kids with special needs but didn't offer special-education programs.
Texas started down a different path two decades ago. Lawmakers here passed reforms such as class-size limits, early reading intervention programs, strong teacher certification standards and, eventually, equalized funding. Even Gov. Rick Perry – whose campaigns have received mountains of Leininger money – acknowledges that students' test scores have been going up.
Tax-funded vouchers would threaten all of that progress. But don't bother telling that to Dr. Leininger. He's too busy buying the Legislature.
Kathy Miller is president of the Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan organization that supports public education, religious freedom and individual liberties. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.