Political Payback for Leininger

by TFN

As we learn more about recipients of new grants under the state’s Dropout Recovery Pilot Program, it’s becoming clearer that one key political winner is James Leininger. Leininger, a San Antonio physician and businessman, is the state’s biggest financial backer of private school voucher schemes and a major donor to Gov. Rick Perry’s election campaigns.

On Monday a state district judge in Austin rejected the Texas State Teachers Association’s request for an injunction that would have blocked the distribution of public funds to private schools through the dropout program. We told you about TSTA’s request last week. In addition to the injunction request, TSTA has filed a lawsuit to stop this diversion of tax dollars to private schools. That lawsuit is pending.

A look at one of the grant recipients illustrates how state education officials appointed by Gov. Perry are using the dropout program as a back-door voucher scheme. That recipient, Christian Fellowship of San Antonio, Inc., is an evangelical Christian church that established Family Faith Academy in 1998. See Christian Fellowship’s grant application here. The Texas Education Agency, under the direction of Education Commissioner Robert Scott (who Gov. Perry appointed in 2007), awarded a grant to Family Faith Academy over 22 public school districts whose applications were all rejected.

A 1999 Texas Observer article explained how Family Faith Academy was able to open after Leininger pledged $50 million for a privately funded voucher scheme in the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio. Leininger said he would fund those vouchers for 10 years or until the Legislature instituted a publicly funded voucher scheme.

As the Observer pointed out, Leininger’s voucher funds were a boon to Family Faith Academy, which opened its doors in a former roadside bar in San Antonio. But despite the millions of dollars he has funneled to legislative election campaigns, Leininger has never succeeded in getting lawmakers to pass a publicly funded voucher scheme. So last year Leininger said he would stop funding his voucher program after the 2007-08 school year.

As a result, Family Faith Academy needed another source of revenue. Now the school has it in the form of a Dropout Recovery Pilot Program grant.

Support for stronger efforts to keep students in school and to help dropouts get an education is almost universal. In fact, public school districts across Texas have been implementing new and innovative programs to do just that. As TFN President Kathy Miller said in a press release:

“It’s hard to believe that a private school established just 10 years ago in a former roadside bar offers a more credible dropout recovery program than 22 public school districts whose applications for a grant were rejected. Just as interesting is that this private school would get public tax dollars just as James Leininger turns off his money spigot for a privately funded voucher scheme that allowed the school to open in the first place.”

Here is the full press release:

Giving public funding to a San Antonio private school for a dropout recovery program is political payback to a financial major backer of Gov. Rick Perry and private school voucher schemes, the president of the Texas Freedom Network said today.

“It’s hard to believe that a private school established just 10 years ago in a former roadside bar offers a more credible dropout recovery program than 22 public school districts whose applications for a grant were rejected,” TFN President Kathy Miller said. “Just as interesting is that this private school would get public tax dollars just as James Leininger turns off his money spigot for a privately funded voucher scheme that allowed the school to open in the first place.”

In addition, the application from Christian Fellowship of San Antonio indicates that three people who appear to be related John Rhodes, who founded and runs the private school, and Kerri Ann Rhodes and Kelli G. Rhodes will be paid partly through the grant.

A state district judge today refused to grant a temporary injunction to prevent TEA from providing public funding to Christian Fellowship of San Antonio and two other private organizations. The Texas State Teachers Association sought the injunction and has filed a lawsuit over the issue.

Christian Fellowship of San Antonio, an evangelical church, established Family Faith Academy in 1998 in a building that formerly housed a series of bars. The school accepted students who were awarded vouchers through the privately funded CEO Horizon voucher program in the Edgewood Independent School District in San Antonio. James Leininger pledged $50 million to the CEO Horizon program over 10 years or until the state instituted a publicly funded voucher scheme beginning in 1998. Leininger said in 2007 that he would stop funding the program after the 2007-08 school year.

Leininger has been a major financial backer of Gov. Rick Perry’s political campaigns. Gov. Perry appointed Robert Scott as the state’s education commissioner in 2007. Scott has insisted that the Dropout Recovery Program grants be open to private schools like Family Faith Academy of San Antonio.

Such grants are a backdoor voucher scheme that the Legislature never intended to permit when it passed legislation to help school dropouts, Miller said. In fact, the Texas House voted 129-8 in 2007 to forbid public funding for private school vouchers.

“James Leininger has failed repeatedly to get a private school voucher scheme through the Legislature,” Miller said. “Now the governor’s handpicked education commissioner has twisted the Legislature’s intent by creating a backdoor voucher scheme that puts public funding for private schools ahead of our neighborhood public schools.”

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