Jumpin' and Jivin' at the Lege

While the warm February sun shines on the south steps of the Capitol, there occurs a brief exchange that helps illustrate how voucher politics work in Texas.

“Hey, my main man. How are you, brother?” Lieutenant Governor Rick Perry asks Houston Democratic Representative Ron Wilson. “How are you, brother?” Perry is a fifty-year old, right-wing, white, rural Republican from Haskell, and while some black folks might find his jive a bit condescending, the Main Man thinks it’s fine. In fact, he has been invited to lend the imprimatur of the black political establishment to a private school voucher “movement” funded by the Christian Right – in particular, one white San Antonio multi-millionaire who dedicated ten years and millions of dollars to dismantling the state’s civil justice system, electing the most anti-plaintiff, anti-consumer Supreme Court in the nation, and recruiting and funding conservative Christian candidates in legislative races. Dr. James Leininger also loaned $1 million to Rick Perry’s campaign (while handing out $1,000 political contributions to minority representatives such as Wilson). A few minority leaders, like the minority students bused into Austin for the event, are essential to the success of the right’s voucher agenda.

So this is yet again one of Ron Wilson’s moments – and it promises to be way over the top, like the many public moments that have by now defined him as a caricature of a “bad” black legislator. If someone in the Mexican-American caucus stands up and warns that cutting education funds will result in delinquency, Wilson tops that with a threat that “black kids are going to come out into the suburbs where you think you’re safe and get you.” If a Republican legislator says the teachers’ lobby has a vested interest in opposing voucher legislation, Wilson agrees – and walks to the lectern at the front of the House to deride school administrators, teachers, their professional associations’ lobbyists as “pimps and bloodsuckers, living off the blood of little children.” If Al Edwards wears a sports coat and jeans, Ron Wilson wears a sports coat and leather pants. From concealed weapons bills, to the lottery, to vouchers, to sartorial and rhetorical excess, Ron Wilson is always the guy out front – always the Main Man. And today, like Rick Perry, the Main Man is working for “The Man.” Perry isn’t the brightest guy to ever preside over the Senate, but he knows that Wilson will be useful in advancing James Leininger’s voucher agenda. And Leininger is the man whose money put Perry in the position he now holds.

Before considering what Wilson said to the February 16 voucher rally, it is worthwhile to set the scene, to draw what the public schoolteachers Wilson routinely beats up on might call a sociograph.

Imagine yourself facing north at the end of the long promenade that leads up to the Capitol. Stage right is Melinda Whatley, the lobbyist for James Leininger’s Texas Public Policy foundation. With her are several nondescript white men from Putting Children First or the Coalition for School Choice, groups that Leininger has underwritten to work on a voucher program that would take tax money from public schools and give it to parents to pay for tuition in private schools.

At stage left are the real lobbyists hired by Leininger. Former legislator and Bush legislative liaison-turned-lobbyist, Cliff Johnson; Ann Richards’ former spokesperson Chuck McDonald; and Reggie Bashur, a longtime Republican operative who has been involved in party politics since before he worked for Governor Bill Clements. (Bashur says he is only “doing publicity” for the voucher group.)

And where you are standing, at the north end of the broad sidewalk in front of the Capitol, is what in South Texas they call raza, the people. In this case, raza – the grass of this putative grassroots movement – has been brought to Austin by a Leininger group and led across downtown by white men who use their cell phones to keep in touch with Leininger’s in-house lobbyist Whatley.

In a larger sense, what we have here is George Bush’s “new coalition” – in a precarious triangle that has money and power on the west, the Christian right on the east, and at the dead-center-south apex, the ethnic minorities the party is “serving.”

It is to this latter group, most of them elementary and middle-school children from St. John Bosco Catholic School in San Antonio, that Ron Wilson is prepared to give a civics lesson. Wilson steps up to the mike and the children stop their “school choice, school choice” chant to listen.

“What are they afraid of?” Wilson asks, setting up the public school teachers he will knock down a few sentences later. “Are they afraid that it’s going to work? Are they afraid that it’s going to show that they haven’t been doing their jobs? Are they afraid it’s going to show that they don’t really care? Well, maybe they ought to get some other jobs, then.”

He continues: “In the paper in Houston, the other day, the Houston Chronicle, they had a report card, talk about how all schools did on T.A.A.S. There’s some schools in there that had a 17 percent passage rate on the math test. We ought to take those people out and cane ’em, right here in front of the Capitol – the people that taught those kids. That is a shame! Shame! Shame! Shame on them!

“Let me tell you, there’s some folks up here that care about you. We goin’ to work until we get blue in the face and until our knuckles are raw, trying to get this program done. Kent Grusendorf right here worked his head off,” Wilson said, referring to the dour Arlington Republican who has been an implacable opponent of equity funding that would provide money for the state’s poorest public schools. “You need to thank him for that. This is not a popular position. We going to do it. We going to work to get it right. Because, the future leaders of this state are sitting right here. But let me tell you what. If we don’t give them an education, they won’t be. They’ll end up in T.D.C., they’d rather lock ’em up than teach ’em. We not goin’ stand for it.

“Now’s the time to draw a line in the dirt.”

The children cheer, although some of them look a bit bewildered. Rick Perry has just promised them he will fight for a raise for public school teachers, told them about competition, and vowed to fight for vouchers. Teel Bivins has promised them that he will file a bill. And Ron Wilson has just told them that public school teachers ought to be publicly whipped in front of the Capitol.

When Wilson is finished he stands around for a few minutes. But the press pack is drawn to Perry and Amarillo Senator Teel Bivins – who actually have the political power to pass a bill, if it is to pass. Bivins will file his bill “soon,” he says. I ask him what sort of conditions will be attached to tax dollars moving from public to private schools. “The students will be required to sit for the T.A.A.S.,” he responds. Will the schools be required to admit all applicants, offer special education services, hire certified teachers? Will there be any Texas Education Agency role, any other state requirements attached to the money given to public schools? Bivins, a courtly Panhandle rancher/businessman, answers the questions with one succinct word: “No.”

Asked the same questions, Perry – who has just told the crowd that he knows that competition created by public-funded private schools will improve public schools – says that “certainly there will be accountability. There will be accountability measures – as we debate the bill we will be more specific about that.” And before Bivins walks back into the Capitol, he promises a “carefully crafted experiment” with vouchers.

While the public awaits the Legislature’s decision (and there is a chance the bill will get no farther than the committee to which House Speaker Pete Laney, a voucher opponent, assigns it), James Leininger has begun a private voucher experiment of his own, providing money to anyone who will leave the Edgewood I.S.D. in San Antonio to attend a private school. Edgewood is the San Antonio school district that inspired Demetrio Rodríguez to go to court in 1968, with a claim that because of inadequate funding his children couldn’t get a decent education. Rodríguez’s granddaughter was a senior at Edgewood’s John F. Kennedy High School by the time the case made its way through the federal courts and to the Texas Supreme Court, which found the state system unconstitutional, and ordered the Legislature to write a law that would provide funding for school districts whose tax base left them without adequate funds.

Ron Wilson was attending school in Houston when that group of Mexican-American plaintiffs filed suit demanding something close to equity for their children San Antonio’s Edgewood schools. There is enormous symbolic meaning in Dr. Leininger’s attack on that particular district, which has a history of using its meager resources well, and is hardly the lowest-performing school district in San Antonio. (South San Antonio I.S.D. and Harlandale I.S.D are actually “more deserving” of Leininger’s private voucher program, which Jeff Mandell examines in a feature that begins on page 8.)

Beyond the symbolic value of Leininger’s program, there are fiscal consequences for Edgewood, which, after finally winning access to funds that the Texas Constitution guarantees, now finds its students and their daily attendance allotment from the state seduced away by a private voucher system designed to prepare the way for the public system that Wilson is shilling.

One of the members of the Edgewood faculty, who thirty years ago worked with parents preparing their equity lawsuit (and who has since gone on to considerable distinction), told me in a recent conversation that voucher politics are based on a model the Mexican-American community understands:

“We’ve seen this happen to us before. Its the same old story. They tell us, ‘We’re going to do this to you because it’s good for you. We’re going to fuck you because it’s good for you.’ And then they do.” – L.D.

Lou Dubose was editor of The Texas Observer from 1987-1999. He’s authored five books, including the best-seller Shrub with Molly Ivins. He currently edits The Washington Spectator.

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Published at 12:00 am CST