Standing Up for Public Education


Almost a decade ago, I attended a press conference at the offices of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in downtown San Antonio. Whether it was Edgewood I or Edgewood II, I don’t recall. Nor do I recall the specific issues addressed at the press conference – except that it dealt with the school funding equity litigation that began in 1968, when Demetrio Rodríguez stepped forward as the “name plaintiff” in a federal lawsuit ultimately decided by the Texas Supreme Court. What I vividly recall was that San Antonio Senator Gregory Luna was one of the legislators standing up for equitable school finance. Luna, then a state representative from San Antonio, was also barely standing. He had either just completed bypass surgery or was scheduled for it. And he seemed very frail – walking tentatively across the room and terribly short of breath.

Ten years later, Luna is one of eleven Senate Democrats standing together to keep Senator Teel Bivins’ voucher bill from being brought up for a vote on the Senate floor. Under Senate rules there is no bill calendar; a bill is listed on the intent calendar, and whenever two-thirds of the body votes to do so, it is brought to the floor. So eleven Senators can keep a bill from being debated. And Senator Luna is one of eleven Democrats standing in the way of an “experimental” voucher bill, tailored to include the four largest school districts in the state.

Once again, Luna is not quite standing. He is back in the hospital in San Antonio, recovering from surgery and gravely ill. Until the second week in April, Luna’s absence was not so important because there was a sufficient margin of anti-voucher votes. Then Democratic Senator Mike Moncrief of Fort Worth let it be known that he was no longer committed to vote against suspending the rules and bringing Bivins’ voucher bill to the floor. Moncrief said that he is still opposed to vouchers, yet believes the issue should get a fair hearing. Translated from the code in which legislators speak, that might well translate: “I want a seat on the Senate Finance/House Appropriation conference committee.”

Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry has to make something happen on vouchers this session – in order to deliver for his biggest financial backer, Dr. James Leininger of San Antonio. Leininger put $1.5 million into Perry’s campaign against Democrat John Sharp and is so committed to vouchers that he has funded a private voucher program in San Antonio, targeting the Edgewood Independent School District. Now it’s time for Perry to make good on his half of the deal. The Lieutenant Governor controls conference committee appointments in the Senate, and is pressuring senators who stand in the way of a voucher bill. “It’s hard to say what Moncrief traded his vote for,” said one public interest lobbyist, noting that Senators Eddie Lucio, Ken Armbrister, and Frank Madla never were on the list of Democrats blocking the bill.

“I’m going to do everything I can to see to it that this bill doesn’t get to the floor,” said Austin Democrat Gonzalo Barrientos. Barrientos says that public opinion is turning against the voucher issue, because people finally realize it represents a threat to public education. Speaking of Bivins, who represents Amarillo, Barrientos added, “And it doesn’t even apply to any of the schools in the district of the Senator who sponsors it.” (The “pilot” program proposed by the Bivins bill would directly affect only major urban districts.) Reminded that the bill is very important to the Lieutenant Governor, and that the pressure is increasing, Barrientos responded, “It’s important to me too, and I didn’t take any big contributions from anyone on either side of the issue.” Barrientos had predicted that the twelve Democrats opposed to the bill would hang together and that several Republicans might join them. Two days later, Moncrief bolted and the Senate Democratic Caucus held a late-night meeting – without Moncrief, Madla, Armbrister, or Lucio – to discuss a strategy to stop the bill.

At the same time, Luna, the eleventh vote, wrote a plaintive appeal to Perry, Bivins, and Moncrief. “This is to notify you that although presently hospitalized I intend to make whatever arrangements are necessary to be in the Senate to vote against this legislation,” Luna wrote on April 16. “Accordingly, I request Lt. Gov. Rick Perry and Senator Teel Bivins, author of SB 10, to give me at least 24 hours notice before bringing up the bill on the floor of the Senate.” In his letter to Moncrief, Luna concluded: “Although I had counted on you as a fellow opponent, today I was informed that you now intend to vote for SB 10. If that is true, then I am requesting that you at least refuse to vote for this bill until next week and only after I am allowed 24 hours to make necessary arrangements to be there.” Perry has said he will honor Luna’s request, but he is as much Leininger’s lieutenant as he is Lieutenant Governor. If Perry decides to allow a vote to suspend the rules on SB 10, one of the ten healthy Democrats opposed to the bill will filibuster for twenty-four hours – to allow Luna time to arrange for an ambulance to get him from San Antonio to Austin.

Yet even some voucher opponents don’t believe Senate Democrats can hold. “I think it will get out of the Senate and come over here,” said Barry Telford, a House Democrat from DeKalb. Telford is the chair of the House Calendars Committee. Unlike the Senate, the House has a specific legislative calendar, set by Calendars. “I can’t speak for Chairman [Paul] Sadler’s committee, but I don’t think it has the votes there,” Telford said of the Public Education Committee, which Speaker Pete Laney has stacked with a seven-to-two Democratic majority. “It certainly doesn’t have the votes on my committee [which has a seven-to-four Democratic majority].” The Speaker has long opposed vouchers. His committee assignments suggest that he has rediscovered partisan politics in response to Leininger’s attempt to buy the House through election contributions.

With two key committees and the Speaker impeding the progress of a voucher bill in the House and time running out, I asked Telford, isn’t it unlikely that there will ever be a vote taken on the floor? “Between now and the end of the session,” Telford responded, “there will be a number of bills to which vouchers are germane. There can be a voucher amendment attached to any one of those bills.”

Last session on one such House amendment there was a sixty-seven to sixty-seven tie. So the Senate is the firewall. If a voucher bill is passed this session, it will be passed because Mike Moncrief traded his vote – while a colleague lying in a hospital bed was standing up for public education. – L.D.