Money Talks

In an exclusive interview, press-shy Republican power broker James Leininger explains his support for school choice and defends his big-bucks intervention in the 2006 primaries.

It’s rare for you to talk to the press, yet your office approached Texas Monthly about doing this interview. Why now?
The issue at hand, which is school choice for poor children in the inner cities in Texas, is much more important than my personal preference.

Is there anything about the timing of your decision to be interviewed that’s related to the publicity you got during the most recent election cycle, in which you were criticized for your expenditures in five Republican primary races in an effort to defeat legislators who opposed school vouchers? Do you feel a need to answer some of the people who spoke up about you?
No. For me the issue is getting a good education for poor children. It doesn’t have anything to do with what someone said about me during the election cycle.

How did you come to school choice in the first place?
Almost twenty years ago, our director of human relations at KCI [Kinetic Concepts Incorporated, the San Antonio hospital-bed company that Leininger founded] came to me and said, “We’re going to have to change the way we interview prospective employees, because we found that we have three employees who are totally illiterate. We’re going to start having them sit there and fill out the application as opposed to letting them take it home with them.” I was shocked by that—that people could graduate from local high schools and get a job and be completely illiterate. So we got them into adult education classes and got them reading, and I said, “You know, we have to do something to help improve the schools.” And I got involved in every type of school program for the public schools that was out there. We did mentoring programs that all of our employees participated in; at the time, we were right up the road from Sam Houston High School, and we’d have fifty or sixty kids in here eating lunch with their mentors. We helped found a health careers magnet school and on and on.

The money came from KCI or from you personally?
Me personally. It was [an attempt] to solve the problem for everybody. Obviously, if you have a working population that is undereducated or, in the worst case, can’t read at all, it bodes very poorly for your company, for your city, and for your state.

At what point did you get involved in the political arena as an advocate for the issue?
[Initially] I didn’t see it as a political problem. I saw it as an educational problem, so we set about working locally with the public schools and with anybody who had an idea or claimed to have a program to improve the public schools. After five years of doing that, the schools hadn’t improved. In fact, a lot of people were arguing that they were worse. At that point, I read an article in the Wall Street Journal about Pat Rooney, who had started a private school voucher program, a scholarship program for children from low-income families in Indianapolis. And I said, “That’s the answer. We’ve got to get competition to work, and that will improve the public schools and will certainly improve the lives of the kids who choose to go to the school they want to go to.”

How much money do you estimate that you spent during those first five years?
Probably a couple hundred thousand dollars.

Which is not inconsequential.
Yeah. Things were a lot less expensive back then, shall we say, and our company wasn’t doing as well as it is now, so it was a large effort.

I can imagine the public school folks saying, “Here’s this guy who thinks we’re not doing a very good job and wants to put in his own money.” Were you warmly received?
Very warmly. And frankly, even then, when we started the private school scholarship program, we had a very warm relationship. Because, number one, we’ve never attacked the public schools; we’ve always tried to help them. And number two, we announced that the scholarship was to [allow children to] go to any public school or private school of their choice. It’s about a choice; it’s not about private schools. We actually did have people go from a poor-performing school district to a better school district—to, say, Alamo Heights.

Isn’t public school free? How did the scholarship work in the case of a transfer from one public school to another?
At the time, you could pay, I think, an additional $3,000 [per student per year] to transfer to Alamo Heights. We provided them the means to pay part of the [transfer fee], and the family was responsible for the rest of it. The very first year, for instance, we got a call from a principal of a middle school over on the east side. He said that he had two boys—twins, very good kids—who didn’t want to be involved with gangs, but the gangs were after them, and the school couldn’t protect them. And we had to give them a scholarship or they were going to get killed. So we did. We gave those two boys a scholarship, and they both went to another school and did very well. So from the start, we’ve had a good working relationship with the public schools.

Give me a sense of the magnitude of the scholarship program and how much money went into it.
We started off with one thousand scholarships at $750 apiece. We surveyed every private school in San Antonio at that time, and the average tuition was $1,500. We set our scholarship at half.

So the price tag would have been $750,000?
Exactly. That was the 1992—1993 school year—the first year. It was a revolutionary idea at the time. There was skepticism. Frankly, I wasn’t sure it would work. I thought, at the very worst, that we were helping poor children who felt like they were in a bad situation or who felt unsafe—who were being beat up or bullied or whatever the individual circumstance was.

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