Bishops pushing school vouchers
By Guillermo X. Garcia
Express-News Austin Bureau
AUSTIN — May 19, 2005 - Texas Catholic bishops have launched a statewide effort targeting lawmakers, many of them Catholic, whom the bishops believe can be persuaded to vote for an expanded school voucher program, lobbyists for the church acknowledged Wednesday.
As part of that effort, San Antonio Archbishop José Gomez wrote to a number of Bexar County lawmakers last week saying it was his "personal expectation" that they would support voucher programs.
The House education committee Wednesday passed a voucher proposal for a 12-year pilot program authored by Rep. Linda Harper-Brown, R-Irving, sending it to the House floor.
Two lawmakers who oppose voucher programs said they were disappointed by the tone in the archbishop's letter, which they termed threatening and intimidating.
"Most people don't respond well to threats, veiled or otherwise, and I take this (letter) as a threat," said one lawmaker, who described himself as a devout Catholic, and asked not to be named.
Deacon Pat Rodgers, communications director for the Archdiocese of San Antonio, said Gomez's intention was not to intimidate or threaten but to ask legislators to consider alternatives to public education.
He said Gomez wants quality education available to all, and "if he doesn't advocate for Catholic education, who will?"
Brother Richard Daly, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said the group sent the names of targeted legislators to their home dioceses.
"We are coordinating this statewide," he said. The voucher issue "one of our legislative priorities."
Some legislators who received the letter said they didn't feel intimidated by it.
But those legislators also said that they were not persuaded by Gomez's argument.
"I wasn't intimidated by the letter, but it was quite a direct message, no minced words," San Antonio Democrat Rep. Carlos Uresti said. "I respect (Gomez's) position, and I appreciate his passion, but with all due respect to the archbishop, he did not change my mind. I opposed vouchers before the letter, I continue to oppose vouchers after the letter."
On the heels of the letter, James Leinninger of San Antonio, a wealthy physician whose CEO Foundation is sponsoring 160 Edgewood School District students via a privately funded voucher program at Holy Cross High School, this week personally lobbied lawmakers off the House floor.
Although they appeared to overlap, it wasn't immediately clear if Gomez' letter and Leinninger's lobbying effort were coordinated.
One lawmaker said he felt the efforts were linked.
"As a Catholic, I'm tremendously disappointed to hear that my church has purposefully aligned itself with folks who are strict advocates of the Republican Party," said Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine. "Mr. Leinninger clearly is not bipartisan."
Leinninger, who couldn't be reached for comment, is viewed as a lightning rod for voucher programs, which seeks to use public tax dollars to fund private or faith-based schools.
Harper-Brown said her bill, in the form of an amendment, was added as an amendment to a bill that reauthorizes the Texas Education Agency, which lawmakers must consider before the session ends May 30. Without passage of the sunset measure, the agency ceases to exist.
If approved, the pilot program is estimated to cost $69 million.
The Senate sponsor of the TEA sunset bill, Mike Jackson, R-La Porte, said he will not accept the planned House voucher amendment and would work to strip it from the bill.
Voucher proponents say the goal is to provide a high-quality education for students from lower socio-economic levels who could not otherwise afford private school tuition. They view vouchers as providing competition to public schools and force greater accountability in the public education system.
Opponents say the public education system is hemorrhaging from a lack of financial resources and claim that voucher programs seek to "cherry pick" prized students, while leaving behind special needs students, who require more money to educate.
The Associated Press and Staff Writer J. Michael Parker contributed to this report from San Antonio.