Political Intelligence

Best Laid Plans

They gathered outside the Capitol wearing T-shirts that read, “Educaciòn Igual para Todos!” and “Let Parents Choose!” If everything had gone as planned, the pro-voucher rally on Saturday, May 15 might have come at a critical time for Texas schools.

Support for public school vouchers is shaky at the Capitol and across the state. Fifty-eight percent of Texans don’t like the idea of taxpayer money going to private schools, according to the latest Scripps-Howard Texas Poll, and many legislators don’t either. But Governor Rick Perry has come out strongly in support, especially since returning from a “working weekend” in the Bahamas with pro-voucher campaign donor James Leininger.

Key members of the House and Senate should have been in conference committee that Saturday, putting the finishing touches on a school finance plan for the special session Perry had called. It was in conference committee, insiders agree—at the last minute and out of the public eye—that vouchers stood the best chance of being inserted in the House’s omnibus school finance bill. The crowd of nearly 2,000 concerned Hispanic parents thronging the steps outside might have tipped the balance.

But since the special session had been officially declared all-but-dead just the day before, those parents were left talking mainly to themselves. They were bused in from Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio by Hispanic CREO, a national nonprofit organization that promotes vouchers as the solution for minority kids marginalized by their public schools. (CREO stands for Council on Reform and Educational Options; it is also Spanish for “I believe.”)

“We are only asking that the state allow Hispanic children the same educational options, and a greater chance at success, that other Texans enjoy,” Enrique Granados, a Dallas field organizer for CREO, told the crowd. Granados and his wife work overtime to pay for their 5-year-old son’s private education. They decided not to send their son to public school after watching TV news reports about school violence and high minority dropout rates.

Critics of the voucher movement say CREO functions as a public relations front for rich, white, pro-voucher conservatives. By framing vouchers as the best hope for poor kids, supporters may hope to bring a once-fringe issue into the mainstream.

“It’s a motherhood and apple pie thing,” says Maria Robledo Montecel, executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, which has studied minority schooling in Texas for 30 years. “This is the same group of people that has always supported vouchers. These are not people who have a history of working with and being concerned about minority communities.”

CREO’s financial supporters include ultra-conservative funders like the Walton Family Foundation, the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation, and Leininger’s voucher-pushing creation, Children First America. (Children First America joined forces with two other pro-voucher groups on May 17 to become the Alliance for School Choice.) Robert Aguirre, the Texas businessman who launched Hispanic CREO in 2003 and now chairs CREO’s board, is a long-time Leininger associate. Aguirre serves on the board of the Alliance for School Choice, and has also done duty on many of Leininger’s pro-voucher state PACs.

Most recently, Aguirre served as director of Texans for Educational Excellence, which funded a pro-voucher lobbying campaign during the school finance special session, and director of the All Children Matter PAC, which funneled money to a few key minority Democratic house members during the last election.

Regardless of how CREO is funded, there’s no doubt that the parents at the Capitol were concerned about their children’s futures. To them, vouchers offer an immediate answer to an urgent problem. But other minority advocates, like Robledo Montecel, say vouchers won’t solve any problems.

“It’s a false promise,” says Robledo Montecel. “It’s outrageous to be talking about it while we are looking for money to fund the rest of the schools. If neighborhood schools are not what we want them to be, the parents I know want to fight to make them better.”

Castles in the Sand Many Texans may not know it, but they live in the only coastal state in the nation that outlaws private beaches. In 1959, the Lege passed a progressive bit of legislation known as the Open Beaches Act. It mandates that the state’s gulf shore will always and forever belong to the people of Texas.

At least, in theory.

In practice, it hasn’t worked so well. For years, successive state land commissioners have failed to enforce the Open Beaches Act, and a wave of homeowners and developers have steadily washed away the public’s right to play in the sand. The problem is especially acute in Galveston, where seaside homeowners have long been allowed to restrict coastal access and create de facto private beaches for themselves. Now a group of fishermen and beach-goers has filed a lawsuit in hopes of turning the tide.

In the past 25 years, 17 miles of beach on Galveston Island has been closed to cars and trucks. All that remains for those who rely on vehicles to access the beach, like fishermen and the physically disabled, is 3.2 miles of beach on the far west tip of the island, known by those who use it as “the last four miles.” Even that small sliver of sand is at risk. The city’s most recent beach access plan, which it must submit by law to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson for certification, would halt most vehicular traffic on the “last four miles.”

So in March, a coalition of fishermen and beach regulars known as Texas Open Beach Advocates (TOBA) filed a lawsuit against the City of Galveston, Galveston County, and Patterson’s Texas General Land Office (GLO). TOBA’s suit aims to block the current beach access plan, contending that it violates the Open Beaches Act.

The two sides went before Travis County District Judge Paul Davis for an initial hearing in the case on April 22 in Austin. At the hearing, attorneys for two developers—Centex Homes and San Luis Development—joined the defense team of state and local attorneys. The developers have asked to be included in the beach lawsuit, saying that TOBA’s demands for open beach access would negatively affect their interests. Centex Corporation is one of the largest homebuilders in the nation, and boasts an annual revenue exceeding $10 billion. San Luis Development owns beachfront property Centex is under contract to buy. The developers have hired the powerful Texas-based law firm Thompson & Knight.

Why shell out big bucks in legal fees against a bunch of fishermen? Centex has plans to develop 1,100 acres of land on the western tip of Galveston Island. The half-billion dollar resort community would be the largest residential real estate project in Galveston. More importantly for local officials, the deal would reel in $15 million a year in tax revenue. But there’s a caveat: Centex won’t buy the land until the city kicks vehicles (and therefore fishermen) off the supposedly public beach.

In the past year, with their financial interests tethered together, it has become difficult to discern the lines in the sand that separate the City of Galveston from Centex Corp. Lame-duck Galveston Mayor Roger “Bo” Quiroga has informally discussed becoming president of the city’s Park Board, which oversees tourism and the beaches. Quiroga has also discussed future employment options with Centex, according to media reports.

Currently, TOBA is waiting for Judge Davis to decide whether the advocacy group has “standing”—the legal right to assert its case. The defense argues that private citizens can’t sue to enforce the Open Beaches Act, that only the state (GLO) can do that. TOBA attorney Timothy Henderson argues the state’s failure to enforce the Open Beaches Act is exactly the problem. It’s telling that the General Land Office is a defendant in the suit. If the system were working correctly, Henderson says, Commissioner Jerry Patterson and the GLO “should have been the plaintiff.”

Seeds for the Future While it is expected that Latinos will become the majority in Texas sometime around 2025, conventional wisdom has it that true political power commensurate with those numbers probably won’t come until decades later. Many Texas Latinos are not registered to vote. About a million Latinos who are registered don’t vote. Despite Texas now having more elected Latinos than any other state in the union—mostly local officials in areas near the border—the majority of these leaders don’t communicate with each other. And while the Anglo Republicans who presently run Texas and the nation actively recruit and groom future leaders, there has been no comparable organized effort for the Latino community. All of this points to many more years of public policy fashioned by those who have little sympathy for or understanding of the needs of this future majority.

A new group has emerged to try and help accelerate the process of creating a new generation of Latino leaders. Calling itself the Latino Leadership PAC, the group was recently founded by young professionals drawn from the ranks of the University of Texas Law School, the LBJ School, and Capitol staffers. The co-chairs of the PAC are both third-year law students at UT. Many of its members are the first or second generation of their family to achieve financial or educational success. They talk of having benefited from the process and wanting not only to give back, but also to convince others to run for public office for the same reason.

“We want to encourage people to get into public service by identifying first-time candidates, encouraging them, and making an impact in their races,” says Geronimo Rodriguez, a lawyer and founding member. The group has already had one fundraiser in Austin. Plans are afoot for others in San Antonio and Houston in the coming months. The group hopes to poll its members to determine which candidates to support. Membership costs a minimum of $25 a year.

As part of its mission statement, “the PAC welcomes the participation of people from all backgrounds who share its mission to elect more Latinos to office and support an agenda of opportunities for all families.” But while the group is ostensibly bipartisan, the bylaws lay out what could be a daunting hurdle for most of the current Republican leadership is concerned. “The LLPAC will not contribute to or endorse any candidate who supports budget cuts in education, health insurance or health and human services.”

The PAC will focus on campaigns that can be effectively won with less than $250,000, in order to promote grassroots participation. It also hopes to target areas with growing minority populations by supporting Latino candidates in communities that are less than 50 percent Latino. Above all the group hopes to promote access to the American dream, without which the future of Texas could be imperiled. “The Latino Leadership PAC takes pride in continuing the American tradition of opening doors of opportunity to immigrants and persons with low-incomes to rise above their station at birth,” reads the group’s mission statement. “If we fail to plan for, include, and enfranchise the growing Hispanic community we invite financial and social stresses that will tear at the fabric that holds us together as Texans.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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