Friday, March 03, 2006

Voucher Man

James Leininger, San Antonio’s right-wing billionaire philanthropist, had an op-ed in the local paper the other day explaining his particular passion for school vouchers.
The good doctor, who made his fortune by selling specially desinged and manufactured hospital beds, has recently poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a political campaign targeting a select group of supposedly “liberal” Republicans for defeat in next week’s primary. The unlucky lawmakers got on Leininger’s bad list by opposing a school voucher plan during the last legislative session.
While not specifically addressing his political activities, Leininger explains in the piece that his sole motivation is “to improve the lives of poor children in Texas.”
That is certainly a noble goal and Leininger comes across in the piece as being both sincere and dedicated to that long-term effort. Unfortunately, he has latched onto a program that, while possibly helping some students in select situations, would ultimately hurt all of the other students who get left behind.

Leininger explains how he got involved with vouchers in the first place:

Almost 15 years ago I read about a private scholarship program helping kids out of bad schools in bad neighborhoods in Indianapolis. I thought, "That's the answer!" That summer we offered 1,000 scholarships to low-income children in San Antonio. The first week we saw more than 6,000 applications. Because we have been blessed with financial resources, my wife and I knew we needed to help as many children as possible. With the help of other generous, caring people, we created a $50 million scholarship program in San Antonio's Edgewood Independent School District, one of the worst districts in Texas at that time.

So far this is all quite commendable, but then Leininger makes a faulty assumption:

Inspired by competition, that district, which had three failing campuses, had no failing schools two years later and the district improved to a "recognized" rating by the Texas Education Agency for the first time. This greatly benefited even students who chose to remain in the public school system.

So Edgewood ISD suddenly improved because of competition with Leininger’s scholarship program? Were there no other efforts underway at that time to improve the school district? Was more money pumped into the district at the state or local level during that time? What other factors might have contributed to that improvement?
And what about the big distinction between Leininger’s privately-funded scholarship program, and the publicly-funded voucher program that he is trying to ram through the Legislature? The first one does not divert funds away from the school district, while the latter one does.

Leininger says he wants to “give parents the option of choosing a better school.” But even if there is a “better school” available, which in many cases there is not (especially in small town and rural areas), not every child can just pick up and switch to that school.

Leininger also says it doesn't matter if it is a public or private school; “our concern should be that tax dollars are used to see the child get the best possible education.”
For an idea of what Leininger thinks is the best possible education, check out Patrick Henry College where he sits on the Board of Trustees. Especially, check out the school’s Statement of Biblical Worldview.

Leininger notes that there are “many more Texas children desperately in need of help. “And adds that he “will oppose those who force needy children to be trapped in bad and dangerous schools.” But what about the “non-needy children” who would still be stuck in those “bad and dangerous schools”? In Leininger’s ideal world, public tax dollars would be drained away from these struggling schools to send a few select students to private, religious institutions that share a Biblical worldview with Patrick Henry College.

In every other conceivable situation - if you have a military unit that is struggling or a hospital that has problems with poor health care or a police department that is understaffed and unable to control crime - the answer is never to take money away. It is always to provide more money in those instances. But for some strange reason, right-wingers believe the magic answer for education is to withhold funding as the ultimate cure-all to our educational woes.

It’s really too bad, because it is clear that Leininger has a good heart and has every good intention to help these students. He just needs to understand that there are no easy and painless solutions to these kinds of problems. If you want good schools you have to pay for them.

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