A Fighting Chance: October 1995

February 01, 2000 3 min read

“I’m in it for the long haul. And it may be a very long haul.”

Those prophetic words were spoken more than four years ago by Cordia Booth, a Denver middle school teacher who dreamed of opening a charter school in the Mile High City. After a long and difficult battle, Booth, now 56, may finally get her chance.

Booth, along with colleague Noblet Danks, first conceived of Thurgood Marshall Charter School in 1993 when Colorado lawmakers passed legislation allowing the creation of up to 50 new charter schools statewide. As envisioned by Booth and Danks, Thurgood Marshall would serve about 200 students. Classes would be small, with 20 pupils or fewer. There would be no counselors, no librarian, and no security guard so that as much money as possible would go toward classroom instruction. The curriculum would be rigorous. Discipline would be strictly enforced.

Students at the school would outperform those at regular Denver public schools, the teachers believed. Booth and Danks even managed to get the local teachers’ union, which was philosophically opposed to charter schools, to endorse their proposal. “Thurgood Marshall has the most potential of all the ones I’ve seen in Denver,” said Leonard Fox, then-president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.

Full of optimism, the teachers were certain that the Denver school board would approve the charter. Recalled Booth, “I thought, They’re gonna love it!”

But they didn’t. On February 17, 1994, the board approved just two of 15 charter school applications, and Thurgood Marshall wasn’t one of them. Booth and Danks were stunned. But they didn’t give up. Twice, they asked the Colorado State Board of Education to overrule the local decision. The first time, the board declared that the Thurgood Marshall proposal merited reconsideration by the Denver board. The district complied—and rejected the application once again, claiming the school would be too costly. In its second ruling, however, the state board got tough, ordering Denver to approve Thurgood Marshall and to make sure the school was up and running by the 1995-96 school year.

End of story? Not quite. When Denver officials seemed to drag their feet on the school, Booth and her lawyer—Danks had bowed out because of health problems—went to court to force the district to act. A Denver district judge sided with Booth, but the school system appealed. With that move, the school’s fate became a matter for the state’s court of appeals to decide. The legal issue at stake: whether, under Colorado’s constitution, the state board of education could force local school districts to approve charter schools.

Booth, not surprisingly, was depressed and angry. The school board, she said at the time, “seems to be in a power play with the state, in which we’re just playing a small part. But it’s the parents and students who are getting screwed.” To board members, though, the charter school law amounted to nothing more than an unfunded state mandate. If the state can force a local district to open a charter school, they argued, then the state should help foot the bill.

Now, the verdict is in. Last September, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state board of education, paving the way for Thurgood Marshall to finally open its doors. Booth, naturally, was elated when she heard the news, but she feared that the decision had come too late. After all, many of Thurgood Marshall’s original supporters—teachers, parents, and students—had given up hope long ago. Some had even moved away.

“I didn’t know if we had the support base to go on,” Booth says. “But I’m beginning to see that there’s still a need. There are parents who still want this. So we’ll go forward. We might just be able to pull this off after all.”

At the moment, Booth is trying to find a site for the school. Once that’s set, she’ll resubmit her application to the Denver board, which retains the right to negotiate the school’s financing. Because the court ruling failed to address what might happen if good-faith negotiations reach an impasse, Thurgood Marshall isn’t yet a sure thing. “There are still no guarantees,” Booth says. However, none of the Denver board members who first rejected the proposed school remains in office, and the climate for charter schools nationwide has improved since Booth began her seven-year roller coaster ride.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform and a longtime charter school advocate, sees the Denver teacher as something of a hero. “Cordia Booth deserves to be saluted,” she says. “Most people would have walked away from something like this. But she hung in there.”

—David Hill