Democratic Underground

Tort Reform and Vouchers: Building a Better America
Bush's Conservative agenda written and bankrolled by Dr. James Leininger
by Stacey Moberly

It's a pretty well known fact that the new President, George W. Bush, hasn't had an original thought since about 1992. That's the same year he cut his teeth in politics, sitting on the board of advisors of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, or TPPF, founded by and up until recently, chaired by Dr. James Leininger and modeled after the Heritage Foundation.

According to the TPPF's website, http://www.tppf.org, the organization is "a 501 c(3) non-profit, non-partisan research institute guided by the core principles of limited government, free enterprise, private property rights and individual responsibility. The Foundation's mission is to improve Texas government by generating academically sound research and data on state issues, and by recommending the findings to opinion leaders, policy makers, the media and general public."

They neglected to mention that it is chaired by one of the Republican Party's most generous…and invisible…contributors, Dr. James Leininger. They neglected to mention that this organization has written Bush's policy for the last six years. They neglected to mention that this organization is simply a cover for both big business and the Christian Right in Texas to avoid taxes, lawsuits, and to hand taxpayer money to religious organizations.

Bush has championed Leininger's favorite causes, vouchers and tort reform, since he defeated incumbent Texas Governor Ann Richards in 1994. Soon after taking the oath of office, he repaid the financial and power brokering favors of Dr. Leininger (who contributed $4 million to the Republican Party in 1998 alone, and almost $90,000 to Bush himself) by declaring a judicial emergency and demanding swift tort reform. The tough reforms, backed by big businesses and manufacturers across the state, passed easily through a legislature that is a tool of PACs and special interest money.

Leininger had a keen interest in tort reform as a shareholder in Kinetic Concepts, a medical equipment company based in San Antonio that has been the defendant in at least 60 lawsuits over its rotating hospital beds, has lost its insurance, and has been cited and investigated by the FDA numerous times. The new tort reform would cap Kinetic Concepts' liability at $100,000 per lawsuit. This, of course, slipped like butter past the mainstream media in 1995, again in 1998, and yet again in 2000, when Bush was selected as this nation's 43rd President. In Bush's first month in office, he proved to us that he is no outsider; he is keen on returning favors to big business, and he is not interested in protecting people in Texas from industrial pollution, slipshod builders, or faulty manufacturing. (I attempted to delve deeper into Leininger's business ties in the state of Texas by asking Kinetic Concepts if they had any contracts with the State of Texas to provide medical equipment. They refused to give out that information.)

Tort reform is not the only area of Texas life Leininger is interested in, or that he wants to control. A born-again Christian, Leininger has a keen interest in securing taxpayer dollars to foist a Christian agenda on Texas' children while destroying the public school system. As the founder of the Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation, he put up most of the money for the Edgewood District's pilot voucher program, approaching $50 million. (For non-Texans, Edgewood is the district that sued the state for equal funding, setting off the ten-year Robin Hood battle that still rages to this day, with 22 districts in Texas agreeing to sue the state for the money they have lost to the program since its inception. The majority of these districts are rich, white, and Republican.)

In a discussion with Paul Ponce on PBS in 1998, Dr. Leininger stated "My desire, and the only reason that I'm involved with this is that every student in America would have the same educational opportunity as my children. I can afford to send my children to a private school, if I think that's what's best - any place they need to go. And I think that every child in America ought to have that same opportunity, not just be trapped into one school because they're poor…so it only makes sense that at some point the government has got to do the right thing for those poor children and allow them to go to any school they want to go to." Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the Edgewood pilot voucher program. In a policy brief prepared by IDRA, or Intercultural Development Research Association, based in San Antonio, the Edgewood voucher program is discussed in great detail and is found to have many of the shortcomings that voucher opponents predict will befall other areas that institute voucher programs.

IDRA reports that out of 13,500 Edgewood* ISD students, only 998 received vouchers out of 2,202 applications. Only 600 eventually enrolled in another school. Why the 398 students who received a voucher did not enroll in another school is still a mystery, since the public does not have access to records kept by private schools. Proponents of voucher programs state that they will not "allow" discrimination, but private institutions have always been allowed to discriminate, notably in the case of the Boy Scouts last year.

Students not identified as "at risk" were overrepresented in the voucher program; voucher recipients outperformed their peers on the TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) the year before leaving the Edgewood system, and students with limited proficiency in English were underrepresented in the pilot program. (16.9% of voucher recipients had limited English proficiency, compared with 22% of the students in the Edgewood district.) The already underfunded Edgewood district lost between $4 and $5 million in the first year of the pilot program in order for 600 students to attend private schools. The pilot program might have been "privately funded," but the taxpayers will foot the bill for the district's losses.

Leininger's litany on "opportunities" for all poor students was off base. As currently operated, private schools in Texas cannot absorb more than 1% of the 3.4 million students enrolled in public schools in the state. Far more than 1% (approximately 34,000) are poor and would qualify for the voucher program. Proponents of vouchers in Texas frothed and foamed about "school choice," but what they meant was "private school choice." The private schools are the ones with the choice to make, not the students. Private schools can, and would, reject any student with a record of causing trouble, any student with poor grades, and any student with special needs. It is academic eugenics. By selectively plucking out minds to cultivate, they are letting the rest of the students die on the underfunded vine.

Tort reform was one of the cornerstones of Bush's 1994 campaign, and education reform has been one of his favorite subjects since he took office. Given that these programs were essentially conceived by Dr. James Leininger (who bankrolls Republican elections in Texas) through his "non-profit" conservative think tank and pushed through the Texas Legislature by candidates he sponsors, I'm not inclined to believe that he has Texas' best interests in mind; rather, he is a kingbuilder who buys and sells politicians to push his conservative Christian agenda on Texas. Now, his protégé is in the White House.

Bush has already demonstrated an eager willingness to line up with the Christian Right and Big Business. He has already advocated knocking down the wall of separation between church and state by handing taxpayer money to promote religion in the form of vouchers, and preventing citizens from holding corporations and professionals responsible for their actions in the form of tort "reform." Now, he's in the White House. It makes me long for sappy love notes from interns and jokes about cigars.

*Particularly ironic is Leininger's choice to launch the pilot program in Edgewood, where the battle for equal school funding began over 25 years ago, especially considering that the same people who oppose equal school funding think vouchers are a grand idea.

 

View All Articles