Saturday, May 27, 2006

Leininger's Edgewood Myth

Dr. James Leininger has been getting some bad press lately, what with the brouhaha over the primaries and all, so he decided to come clean. In the June issue of Texas Monthly, Evan Smith interviews the elusive "sugar daddy" of the Republican party. Turns out he's just a kindly old grandpa with some money and a deep love of children. And the first line of the article reveals that this reclusive man initiated the interview:

It's rare for you to talk to the press, yet your office approached TEXAS MONTHLY about doing this interview. Why now?

The issue at hand, which is school choice for poor children in the inner cities of Texas, is much more important than my personal preference.

The primary races were a mixed blessing for Dr. Leininger. Now he's taking his message directly to the public. That would be the same public that repeatedly has refused to support public funding of private school vouchers. Maybe they just don't realize what an effective tool vouchers are.

The critics of voucher programs insist that they're an incentive for kids to flee public schools. That's not a fair criticism?

No, it's not.We offered a scholarship to every child in Edgewood. It was among the poorest-performing school districts. More than 90 percent of its students were classified as economically disadvantaged. Its dropout rate exceeded 40 percent. And it had a high teen pregnancy rate. Any way you look at it, it was the worst school district around, and still, only 12.5 percent of the student chose to leave. And the ones who stayed benefited greatly, because the public schools so dramatically improved. Let me tell you what happened in Edgewood. In 1996 they had two schools that were ranked "low performing" [the lowest classification by the Texas Education Agency], and the district had the next-to-lowest
classification, which is "academically acceptable." Two years after our program started, they had no failing schools, and they were a "recognized" district for the first time in history.

Wow, pretty impressive. Except not everyone agrees with that assessment. Kathy Miller, of the Texas Freedom Network has this analysis of the Edgewood turn-around.

Of course, 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 if 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. Leininger, however, arrogantly declares 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 nonsense, which is why the Legislature has refused year after year to pass a voucher program.

And some parents at Edgewood have also weighed in:

Last week [Feb. 2003] , a couple of hundred parents from Edgewood ISD in San Antonio visited the Capitol to lobby legislators on behalf of public schools....

The Edgewood folks have more reason than most Texans to be suspicious of vouchers, since they were the initial target of the anti-public-education lobby working to establish a statewide voucher program. Beginning in 1998, the private Children's Education Opportunity Foundation's Horizon program (underwritten primarily by fundamentalist tycoon James Leininger, though he's put in only half as much as initially promised) has been offering private school "scholarships" to students who agree to leave the Edgewood schools. Since Texas school funding is based on the number of students enrolled, every student who leaves costs the district money -- while leaving its fixed costs largely unaltered. The district is 95% Hispanic and 97% "economically disadvantaged" -- i.e., underpaid working people. Thanks to Leininger's targeted "philanthropy," the district estimates it lost $4 million in the first year, and possibly as much as $7 million this year.

But the parents weren't here to talk only about money. They made it clear they believe strongly in public schools, and some had rejoined the fold after being burned by Leininger's vouchers. A mother of four, Gloria Zapata, said she discovered that the private school she tried didn't have the standard programs -- tutoring, after-school care -- taken for granted and free at Edgewood, and that her children were not being fully prepared for high school. Ritabel Garza learned that the private school would not accept her child with special needs ("It's not our choice, it's the school's choice") and that the teachers in the "nondenominational" school were in fact teaching fundamentalist doctrine. "I made a big mistake," Zapata said.

Edgewood ISD Supt. Luis Gonzalez ...asked simply, "If we can't fund public schools, how can we fund private ones?"

Dr. Leininger wisely decided not to make school vouchers an issue during the special session. The primaries may not have been an unqualified success, but with every election, his influence within the legislature grows. We're happy to see him stop hiding behind the shell game of PACs and finally speak his mind.

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