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Voucher advocate has little to show for his donations

Susan Notes: Thank you, Charles Butt, ranked by Forbes at #350 among the world's richest people. Single and childless, we can be grateful that Mr. Butt cares about public education.

Thank you, Carolyn Boyle, longtime PTA member and Girl Scout leader (as well as public relations executive), who has shown the world that grassroots advocacy can work.

by Gary Scharrer

AUSTIN--James Leininger spent nearly $5 million this year trying to elect voucher-friendly lawmakers to the Legislature, but now the retired San Antonio businessman and physician is farther from his goal than ever.

A new parent-driven political action committee that promotes public education--and opposes school vouchers--endorsed a dozen winning state House candidates this year. The success of the Texas Parent PAC leaves Leininger with roughly eight fewer House supporters than he had before last week's elections.

School voucher advocates want lawmakers to approve an experimental program that would allow tax dollars to pay for some low-income children to attend private schools.

While Leininger invested heavily in Republican candidates to advance that cause, San Antonio business leader Charles Butt gave the Texas Parent PAC nearly $300,000 to support anti-voucher candidates, according to campaign finance reports.

Butt, chairman and CEO of the H-E-B grocery chain his family founded 101 years ago, contributed another $375,000 directly to Republican and Democratic candidates endorsed by the Parent PAC.

Winning candidates endorsed by Texas Parent PAC
District 32: Juan Garcia, D-Corpus Christi (defeated Republican Rep. Gene Seaman) District 47: Valinda Bolton, D-Austin (open seat) District 48: Donna Howard, D-Austin (won a special election earlier this year for an open seat) District 54: Jimmie Don Aycock, R-Killeen (open seat) District 71: Susan King, R-Abilene (open seat) District 72: Drew Darby, R-San Angelo (defeated Rep. Scott Campbell in the GOP primary) District 85: Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton (open seat) District 94: Diane Patrick, R-Arlington (defeated House Public Education Chairman Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, in the GOP primary) District 101: Thomas Latham, R-Sunnyvale (defeated Rep. Elvira Reyna in the GOP primary) District 107: Allen Vaught, D-Dallas (defeated House Public Education Committee member Rep. Bill Keffer, R-Dallas) District 118: Joe Farias, D-San Antonio (open seat) District 134: Ellen Cohen, D-Houston (defeated Republican Rep. Martha Wong)

"It tells me that a small group of people can make a difference," Carolyn Boyle of Austin said of the Texas Parent PAC, which she helped form last year after growing frustrated at repeated legislative efforts to approve a voucher program.

She previously coordinated the Coalition for Public Schools, whose 40 members included the Texas Parent-Teachers Association, teacher organizations, the League of Women Voters, the Texas Association of School Boards and the Texas Association of School Administrators.

PTA parents were treated rudely by some lawmakers when they visited the Capitol to promote public education, Boyle said. And she grew contemptuous of the legislative process as she watched House leaders strong-arm members to support voucher legislation.

"People who always opposed vouchers were told that their pet bills would (never see the light of day)," she said. "I watched as people who I knew opposed vouchers vote for vouchers."

The votes were always close, including a 72-72 tie last year.

"It was really frustrating because of Speaker (Tom) Craddick's heavy-handed tactics on the voucher votes," Boyle said. "I just couldn't take it any more."

So she and others created a financial vehicle to elect lawmakers who would never support school vouchers.

Impressive as their win Tuesday might be, it's not likely to discourage voucher supporters.

"He is more determined than ever," Leininger spokesman Ken Hoagland said.

With elections over, the debate can focus on the benefits of a school voucher program that would allow some low-income children to transfer from inner city schools to private schools, he said.

"And the merits of school choice are so compelling that we will win the support of both Republican and Democrat legislators," Hoagland said.

With nearly half of Latino children dropping out of school, it makes sense to allow low-income students to transfer to private schools, Hoagland said, because some of the tax money allotted for them would remain with school districts, leaving more for the students who stay in that public school.

"If (a pilot project) doesn't work here, there is no harm to the public schools. If it does work, we found one more way to help these children," he said. "Why in the world wouldn't we try it?"

Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-San Antonio, who fended off a Leininger-backed candidate in last week's election, said he's never seen a well-crafted school voucher bill. Voucher supporters don't want student achievement measured by the same standardized tests applied to public schools, Castro said.

"You can't have different standards if everybody draws from the same source of money," he said.

Castro's opponent, Nelson Balido, spent about $179,000 trying to defeat him, with $100,000 coming directly and indirectly from Leininger.

A Leininger-funded academy is located in Castro's district, but Castro said he's never met Leininger.

"I wish he would sit down and talk to people seriously about it rather than trying to use blunt force by using money as a weapon to gain legislative seats," Castro said. "That's not the way democracy should work."

Butt who declined to be interviewed for this article is easily the largest financial supporter of the Texas Parent PAC, which draws modest contributions from dozens of school superintendents and educators and such parents as Nancy Lomax, who has long been active in Houston public schools.

"It's just amazing that she's been able to pull this together and get this many people elected in such a short time," Lomax said of Boyle. "The most obvious message (from the group's electoral success) is that we had an entire Legislature under the leadership of Mr. Craddick who did not want to pay attention to ordinary people. They were not listening to parents and teachers."

Now, she said, lawmakers "will have to work with ordinary folks who make only ordinary-sized contributions. It's pretty amazing."

Leininger, however, downplays Tuesday's results.

"It's best not to read too much into these election results in terms of school choice," spokesman Hoagland said. "We had a sea change at the national level. Candidates here in the state won and lost for a whole bunch of different reasons."

Boyle disagrees.

"It turned out that vouchers was a big issue in many campaigns for the Texas House," she said. "And people who were promoting vouchers typically lost."

If re-elected speaker, Craddick, R-Midland, will determine how the voucher debate goes, Boyle said.

"If he appoints a (House Public Education Committee) chairman who supports the whole concept of using public money for private schools, it will just take place all over again," she said of the long battle. "So much time and energy has been wasted on the voucher issue just because Dr. Leininger is promoting it."

Craddick spokeswoman Alexis DeLee said it's premature to speculate on who will head the education committee or whether vouchers will become part of the debate.

"At the end of the day, it's going to be left up to the will of the House," she said. "We are just going to have to wait and see what happens in committee and what plays out in the session."

The Parent PAC found instant success last spring when it recruited a former school board member to challenge the education panel's chairman, Rep. Kent Grusendorf, R-Arlington, in the GOP primary.

Grusendorf had been a stout and earnest supporter of school vouchers. And he outspent his opponent, Diane Patrick, by about $125,000. She won by a landslide.

Leininger will continue pressing the case that low-income children deserve better schooling, Hoagland said.

"Parents should have the right to pick the best schools and the best educational setting for their children," he said.

And anti-voucher parents will keep resisting, said Lomax, the Houston parent.

"I can assure you that people like me will keep working with the Parent PAC to promote public schools," she said.

— Gary Scharrer
San Antonio Express-News


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