A One Man Groundswell BY LAUREN REINLIE
t the mid-Legislative session mark, the award for the slickest rally at the Capitol goes to the Hispanic Council for Education and Reform (H-CREO). On April 5, H-CREO, which bills itself as the largest Hispanic education group in the state, bused hundreds of parents to Austin to show that there is Latino grassroots support for school vouchers in Texas. Between 300 and 400 parents attended a pro-voucher rally—in plush style by public interest standards—prior to a hearing on voucher legislation in the House Public Education Committee that day. Organizers paid for a large white tent to stake out on the Capitol grounds, so the attendees could sit in the shade while having lunch served to them. They set up a professional sound system on the Capitol steps (it too had its own little white tent). The line-up of speakers was the power trifecta: Governor Rick Perry, Lt. Governor David Dewhurst, and House Speaker Tom Craddick (R-Midland). Before a bank of television cameras the three state leaders looked out into the brown faces gathered below and promised them that they heard their urgent cry to reform public schools by instituting vouchers. “School choice is one of the most important things we can do in this state,” Craddick told the crowd. “I assure you from the House side, we support choice.” Organizers at H-CREO won’t reveal how much the rally cost. Marcela Garcini, a Texas parent coordinator for the group, says they organized the rally in just three days. (If they had started any earlier, it meant someone tipped them off about the hearing before it was publicly posted.) Garcini says the rally’s success was a reflection of H-CREO’s community organizing efforts in Texas since 2001. Organizers for the group go into public schools and churches to talk to parents, says Garcini. “When you really work with communities, when you really understand them, when you tell them the truth about how their kids are doing in the schools—this is the result you get.” The rally, according to organizers, showed how much grassroots support vouchers have in the Hispanic community. Interviews in the crowd told a slightly different story. A majority of the parents present at the rally had children who were no longer in the public school system. They belonged to Children’s Educational Opportunity Fund, or CEO, a pro-voucher group in San Antonio that provides privately funded vouchers, or scholarships, for parents to put their kids into private schools. CEO San Antonio’s program director Jessica Sanchez estimates 250 parents from their parent organization, Las Comadres, attended the rally in Austin. Most of these parents already receive money to send their children to private schools through the CEO scholarship program. But Carla Garcia, a parent who attended the rally and whose son has been on a CEO scholarship program since its inception in 1998, says the grants are ending. “Someone has donated the money for people needing it in San Antonio, but the money is running out. Once it runs out, people are going to have to pull their kids out of the schools they are in now because they are not going to be able to afford to keep them there.” So who is this generous donor who doles out voucher money? The largest contributor to the CEO program also happens to be the second largest campaign contributor in Texas, Dr. James Leininger. According to Sanchez, Leininger founded CEO and made a 10-year commitment to the organization. To date he has poured between $30 million and $50 million into the scholarship program. In the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, he gave a total of almost $2 million to Texas Republicans, according to figures from the Austin-based campaign watchdog Texans for Public Justice. It’s not surprising that the large majority of attendees at the H-CREO rally were actually Leininger-funded CEO parents. Federal tax records further confirm that H-CREO and CEO are closely linked. Robert Aguirre, one of the original founders of the CEO program in San Antonio in 1998, is still managing director, but, according to Sanchez, is no longer on the payroll. Aguirre also helped to launch H-CREO in 2001 and now serves as chairman of the board of trustees. In 2003, he received over $100,000 in consulting fees from H-CREO, according to tax records. H-CREO receives much of its funding from right-wing pro-voucher groups such as the Walton Family Foundation of Wal-Mart fame and Leininger’s own pro-voucher political action committee, Children First America. (See Political Intelligence, June 4, 2004). It’s a good time to be a Republican fat cat with a cause. In October, H-CREO received a five-year, $2.5 million grant from the Department of Education to inform the public about their options under the No Child Left Behind Act. While refusing to reveal the origin of the money for the rally, organizers did insist that federal education dollars were not used. Chuck McDonald, serving as a spokesperson for the group’s efforts in Austin, says “they spent enough to attract enough people to get the press to come out” and that it probably fell somewhere in the couple of thousands of dollars. (McDonald was most recently in the media testifying in the Texans for a Republican Majority (TRMPAC) civil trial about his work creating more than four million mailers distributed to voters by the Texas Association of Business (TAB). Bill Cerverha, the defendant in the civil trial, was also at the rally in support.) Garcini, the Texas parent coordinator for H-CREO, says she feels the organization is being unfairly targeted on money issues. “Who cares about the funds? Is the program working? Are the parents getting informed? Why, when they see the organization is working, when they have the proof, are they questioning the funds?” Leininger has poured millions of dollars into the fight for school vouchers—including political contributions, but hasn’t seen the Lege give much movement to school voucher legislation. Nearly all the major contributors to the 2002 campaign that captured the Legislature—in a campaign currently under investigation by two grand juries—have already received something in return. Leininger and gambling interests appear to be the only ones left behind. “I’m here to tell you, that there are people listening to you at the highest level of government,” Perry told the cheering parents at the rally. And, Dr. Jim, that means you, too. Lauren Reinlie is a legislative intern for The Texas Observer.