Cover Story

Class warfare?

The lawsuit over school vouchers in Colorado is following a familiar pattern: Better-off suburban parents who are happy with their children's public schools oppose poorer parents who want options

Issue: "Class warfare on vouchers," Aug. 23, 2003

WITH ONLY A LITTLE summer freedom remaining, 11-year-old Danielle Teague wasn't happy about the prospect of entering middle school on Aug. 8. Sitting slump-shouldered at the aging table in her mom's eat-in kitchen, the soon-to-be-6th-grader pouted as she sucked on a Go-Gurt: "I wanted to go to MLK."

She meant Denver's Martin Luther King Middle School, where her friends will go. But her mother, Angelia, didn't want Danielle and her twin sister Denise distracted with too much socializing. That, plus stories of violence at MLK, led Ms. Teague to enroll the girls at Rachel B. Noel Middle School instead.

From an academic standpoint, it wasn't much of a choice. 2003 Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) scores show that student achievement at both schools is equally dismal: Just one in 10 students, grades 6 through 8, was proficient in math, while nearly half scored an unsatisfactory. Only a third of students could read proficiently, while about one in three read at an unsatisfactory level. Noel's math scores didn't slide backward this year as MLK's did. But then, 2003 was Noel students' first year taking the test.

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Ms. Teague would like to escape that cycle of failure. But as a single parent surviving financially in a neighborhood where two-thirds of middle-schoolers and eight in 10 grade-schoolers qualify for government-subsidized school lunches, she can't afford private school. That's one reason she signed on as one of 12 defendant families in the nation's latest legal battle against school choice.

The target this time is the Colorado Opportunity Contract Pilot (COCP) program. Colorado Governor Bill Owens in April 2003 signed a bill that created the first publicly funded school-voucher plan since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Cleveland Scholarship Program last year. In May, the Colorado Education Association filed suit with a Denver district court to block the program, naming Gov. Owens as defendant. Now that action is winding its way through side motions. The main case may be heard as early as this fall.

The Colorado suit is like others brought by teachers unions against school-choice programs that dare to challenge the public-school monopoly. The union plaintiffs are joined by liberal interest groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way, which fight legislatures that redirect public-education dollars when public schools fail to educate kids. The Institute for Justice, a conservative legal group that argued for Cleveland's voucher program before the U.S. high court, is defending COCP.

This suit, like other school-choice legal battles, also names individual families as plaintiffs and defendants-12 who want vouchers and five who don't. (More individual plaintiffs claim injury as taxpaying parents, but they often represent interest or faith groups. WORLD focused on the 17 families who filed on behalf of their minor children.)

Parties on each side of the suit have accused their opponents of using these families to peddle their agendas. But a closer look at six of the families blows that myth-and reveals that citizens on each side are separated not only by a wide economic gulf, but also by deeply held differences over proper public spending and the meaning of educational opportunity.

Colorado joins Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, and Wisconsin as states that already have adopted either a public voucher, tax-credit, or tax-deduction program. (Maine and Vermont also have voucher-program variants.) COCP allows low-income students in public-school districts with eight or more schools rated low or unsatisfactory to receive tax-funded vouchers-made payable to participating area private schools-at their parents' request.

To date, 11 districts, including Denver County Public Schools, must participate. Voucher values are set at a percentage of the state's per-pupil allocation (about $5,000 to $6,000 per child): 37.5 percent for kindergarten, and 75 to 85 percent for grades 1 through 12. School districts keep the balance of each student's state allocation. To qualify, students must be eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches and also must be failing in at least one academic area.

That last requirement is a problem for Angelia Teague. Her daughters did well at John Amesse Elementary, a school that consistently ranks low on state accountability reports (65 to 80 percent of Amesse students scored below proficient in reading, writing, and math on the 2003 CSAP). During third grade, after Danielle's test scores qualified her for the Denver district's gifted program, the school sent Ms. Teague a letter telling her how to apply. She did apply, and in 2001 Danielle was put on a waiting list. She's still waiting.

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