Thursday, February 14, 2008

Citywide school-voucher program will end this year

Wow! This is amazing. This is really great news. The battle over vouchers in the legislature probably gets to take a break. Not that the battle isn't worth fighting, but rather that it has consumed way too much time and effort over the past decade when attention can and should be given to other issues. On the positive side, though, I would say that if there's any issue that unites everybody—lay public, teachers, civil rights groups, and teacher and administrator associations—it's vouchers. This means that at least to some degree, these divergent strands of the community have come together, face to face. All need to take a bow—and be on guard....


Jenny LaCoste-Caputo / 02/13/2008
San Antonio parents who send their kids to Catholic schools using privately funded vouchers are reeling from a sucker punch they didn't see coming.
Quietly, and with little fanfare, the Children's Education Opportunity Foundation of San Antonio began notifying parents a few weeks ago that the program would end with this school year.

CEO San Antonio is the sister program to Horizon, a voucher program for kids in the Edgewood Independent School District. Both are funded by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, arguably the state's biggest support of school vouchers.

Jessica Almanza has sent her daughter Jenna to St. Leo the Great Catholic School with a CEO voucher for the past five years. She said she'd find a way to keep her daughter there.

"My first thought was, 'What are we supposed to do now?' This is our choice. Are we supposed to abandon our choice?" Almanza said. "I'm not saying public schools are bad, but this is what's right for my daughter."

Horizon, the better known of the two programs, was billed as a decadelong experiment to prove that vouchers not only will help students who use them to go to private schools, but also improve public schools by providing competition. It currently serves 1,703 Edgewood students and is scheduled to end this year.

But CEO, which serves almost 700 students, has been available for students all over San Antonio and pays up to $1,500 a year in tuition assistance — just under half of the cost of most Catholic schools' tuition on the South Side. The program wasn't scheduled to end this year and it left parents, and Catholic school leaders, surprised.

"We thought CEO was going to continue indefinitely," said Carol Johnson, principal of St. Leo's, where 43 of 186 students use CEO vouchers. "Parents have considered it a blessing that CEO was there for them. Otherwise a private-school education would be beyond their means."

Jessica Sanchez, CEO director, said the scheduled end of the Horizon program had a huge influence on the decision to close CEO. She said rising operating costs also were a factor.

Voucher critics speculate that shuttering CEO and Horizon might mean the end of the voucher debate in Texas. Leininger, who has spent $50 million funding the programs, long has lobbied for a publicly funded voucher program.

During the 2005-06 election cycle, Leininger spent nearly $5 million, targeting five Republican lawmakers who voted against taxpayer-funded vouchers, and supporting their challengers in primary elections. Two of those five lost their seats.

But Ken Hoagland, a spokesman for Leininger, said they're not giving up. They'll continue to lobby for a publicly funded voucher program at the grass-roots level as well as reach out to legislators that represent inner-city districts, Hoagland said.

"Dr. Leininger's hope was that when state legislators saw the results of letting parents choose any school they wanted for their child that they would see this is a reasonable solution to the high drop-out rates in public school," Hoagland said, pointing out that more than 90 percent of students in the Horizon and CEO programs not only graduated from high school but went on to college. "Even those results were not enough to convince the legislators of the virtues of school choice."

Hoagland said Democrats in other states are beginning to warm to the idea of school choice — a broad spectrum that includes charter schools and voucher programs. He still hopes to convince lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, that vouchers are a good idea.

"We're just going to keep trying and not make this a partisan issue," Hoagland said. "Really, his (Leininger's) passion is for the children not the politics. Dr. Leininger has tried to win this by putting lots of money in the election process."

Now the focus is on a more grass-roots effort, he said.

Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network that opposes school vouchers, said there's no indication Leininger's experiment made things any better for students left in public schools. She said the steady academic improvement in Edgewood ISD over the past decade began before the voucher programs were launched.

"All along, Dr. Leininger intended his privately funded vouchers to spur a publicly funded program and all of those efforts have flopped in legislative sessions," Miller said. "I think it's clear that Texans don't want vouchers, and it's been clear in every legislative session for a decade."

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