Advocate for school vouchers plans to make a public push

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

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Saying he is tired of being labeled a “caveman” and a “recluse,” voucher supporter Jim Leininger is ready for a public relations offensive.

“I think I have a moral responsibility not to stick my head in the sand,” he said Thursday in a meeting with The Dallas Morning News editorial board.

Dr. Leininger and a group of supporters are on the stump to push a voucher pilot program that they expect will be proposed in the current legislative session.

The San Antonio businessman funds two scholarship programs for poor public-school students in San Antonio, the first of which began in 1992. He has been an active supporter of voucher programs, which would be similar to his but funded with state tax dollars.

In past years, his support for the cause has come primarily in supporting candidates for the Legislature; Dr. Leininger has mostly stayed silent. But a number of candidates he supported lost in November – despite more than $4 million in donations by Dr. Leininger – and he said he is shifting to a more public role to sell the program to citizens. That includes radio spots and billboards in urban areas.

“The politics of school choice are kind of toxic, but the merits, we think, are compelling,” said his spokesman, Ken Hoagland.

The proposed bill Dr. Leininger supports would affect nine large urban school districts, including Dallas and Fort Worth. Low-income students in those districts would be allowed to take up to 90 percent of the money their public school spends per student and use it as tuition at a private school. They would be eligible regardless of their schools’ academic performance.

Critics have long said such a program would weaken the quality of public schools. In response to these arguments, the proposed bill includes a small amount of extra funding for schools whose students choose to leave.

Dr. Leininger’s legislation does not have a sponsor, and it is unclear when it would be introduced. A variety of other voucher proposals have been debated in the Legislature over the past decade. None has passed.