|Joe Rogers, a Denver lawyer and politician, believes the city’s schools are so bad that they violate students’ civil rights.|
On November 3, 1996, Joe Rogers, a Republican, lost in his bid to become U.S. representative from Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, which includes the city of Denver, a Democratic stronghold. His opponent, Diana DeGette, won the race easily, taking 57 percent of the votes. Rogers, a 33-year-old African American lawyer who had spent the better part of two years campaigning for the retiring Patricia Schroeder’s seat in a race that attracted national attention, suddenly was out of the spotlight. During the campaign, Newt Gingrich, Colin Powell, and Oklahoma Representative J.C. Watts had all journeyed to Colorado to stump for the candidate. The New York Times had called him “young, articulate, energetic, and well-prepared.” But now he was just another losing candidate with a lot of time on his hands.
“After the election,” he told a Denver Post reporter in January 1997, “people think you’re dead. You feel like you’ve been to your own funeral.”
These days, however, Joe Rogers is very much alive.
Not only is he running for lieutenant governor, but he is also leading a controversial class action lawsuit against the Denver Public Schools and the Colorado State Board of Education. Filed last May in Denver District Court on behalf of about 40 African American parents and their children, the suit charges the school system with failing to teach basic skills to poor and minority students, and it calls for the district to grant publicly funded vouchers to low- and middle-income parents who want to send their children to private or parochial schools. This past fall, Rogers amended the suit to include the names of more than 3,000 additional plaintiffs—equally divided, he says, among African Americans, Hispanics, and whites. Rogers and his supporters collected the signatures at grocery stores, churches, and schools throughout Denver. “I think if we had kept going,” he says, “we would have had double the number of people we have now. I really do. You can’t underestimate how disappointed and frustrated many parents are with the Denver Public Schools.”
Both the school district and the state board have filed motions seeking to have the suit dismissed. “We don’t think there are grounds for this kind of lawsuit,” says Denver school board member Laura Lefkowits, “or that it’s a constructive way to deal with the problem.” Others—including some parents who have signed on to the suit—accuse Rogers of political opportunism. They say the lawyer initiated the class action in an attempt to gain visibility in his bid for the lieutenant governorship, and they question his commitment to solving the problems spelled out in the lawsuit.
But Rogers bristles at such charges. Indeed, he sees himself as something of a latter-day Thurgood Marshall, and he believes his lawsuit is firmly rooted in such landmark civil rights cases as Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which Marshall, then a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, successfully argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. (The unanimous decision ended segregation laws requiring separate but equal public schools for blacks and whites.)
“Quality education is a civil right,” Rogers likes to say. And the court system, he believes, is just the place to make certain that right is upheld. “It’s really in the classic American tradition,” he says, “to ask the courts to resolve a problem that a school district refuses to solve on its own, and an elected school board has no power to solve.”
Legal experts say Rogers will have a hard time winning his case. Nationwide, only a handful of similar suits have been filed, none of them successful. But whatever the outcome, the suit underscores a trend: the increasing popularity of vouchers—or rather, the promise of vouchers—among blacks and Hispanics, many of whom are fed up with the public schools. Last year, a poll taken by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington, D.C., research group that focuses on black issues, found that 57.3 percent of African Americans and 65.4 percent of Hispanics support school vouchers, while whites are evenly divided on the issue. The strongest support—86.5 percent—comes from blacks between the ages of 26 and 35.
One of the most outspoken proponents of vouchers these days is the Rev. Floyd Flake—a liberal, black, six-term Democratic congressman from New York who resigned from the House last year to devote more time to his church in the Jamaica section of Queens. Like Rogers, he too calls vouchers “a moral issue, a civil rights issue.”
“Many of my friends are saying we don’t need any alternatives, we can do it with public education,” he said in a speech last year at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “If you can do it with public education, why have you not done it?”
“Quality education is a civil right.”
The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers continue to oppose vouchers, as does the NAACP. And the publicly funded voucher programs that have been established in the United States—in Milwaukee, Cleveland, and rural Vermont—face challenges in the courts. But conservatives hope that the growing interest in vouchers among minorities will turn the tide in their favor. The traditional liberal-conservative lines on the issue, they say, are blurring, and strange political alliances are forming.
“Democrat, Republican—none of that stuff really matters,” Rogers says. “People, many of them Democrats, have said to me, ‘Listen, I don’t really care if you’re a Republican. The solution makes sense for our kids.’ ”
Sharlot Smith, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, is a case in point. “I’m a registered Democrat,” she says, “but that doesn’t play a part in how I feel about vouchers. My decision is one from the heart, from being a parent. It’s not a political thing.”
A few days before the 1996 election, one Denver reporter referred to Rogers as “at once charismatic and enigmatic.” It’s an apt description. A passionate orator, he can easily bring a crowd to its feet. In conversation, he’s affable and engaging, but his voice fills with emotion when he talks about the public schools. During a nearly two-hour lunch at the Airport Broker Restaurant, not far from his Northeast Denver home, Rogers, wearing a dark-blue business suit, often pounds his fist on the table to emphasize a point. Then he apologizes for getting so worked up.
Married and the father of three young children, Rogers grew up poor in Commerce City, adjacent to Denver. “Joe Rogers knows what it’s like to use food stamps,” he would say in campaign speeches, using the third-person voice favored by many politicians. But he’s no fan of federal assistance programs. “Success,” he has said, “should be measured by how few people we have on welfare.” He attended public schools, graduating from Adams City High School, where he was a top student. “I believe in public schools,” he says. “I always attended public schools. But I’ll be doggone if I’m going to tell you or anyone else that you have to send your child there.” He says his own experience merely proves that “all cream rises to the top, regardless of the school.”
Rogers had hoped that his personality and message would appeal to members of both political parties, but when the votes were counted, it was clear that few Democrats had switched ranks. “I met so many people who said they agreed with 95 percent of what I said, but they couldn’t vote for me because I’m a Republican,” he said a few months after the election. “I thought people would look at me as Joe Rogers, but the Democrats put out this message that a vote for Joe Rogers was a vote for Newt Gingrich. They pushed Denver to vote Democratic.”
Not long after the election, Rogers was at home with his family one night watching a Disney Channel miniseries called Separate But Equal about Thurgood Marshall and the Brown v. Board decision. “I was so fascinated by it,” he says. “And what struck me about it was that in 1954, they were dealing with many of the same issues we’re dealing with now.” Rogers was surprised to learn that the landmark case was more than just an effort to end segregation in the public schools. “The issue in ’54 was two-fold,” he says. “One part dealt with race, but the other tier that nobody pays attention to was quality of education.” That is, Marshall and the NAACP argued that the so-called “separate but equal” doctrine was inherently unfair because black schools were, in fact, inferior to white schools.
|As Rogers listened to similar tales of anger and frustration, an idea came to him: Why not sue the Denver Public Schools for breach of contract?|
That Rogers, a conservative, would be inspired by the actions of Marshall, an archliberal, seems odd. But Rogers isn’t bothered by the apparent contradiction. “Thurgood was a great civil rights leader,” he says, “and I’ve never really thought of civil rights issues as being liberal or conservative.”
About a month later, Rogers took part in a ceremony honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Also participating were a group of students from Union Baptist Excel Institute, a private school in Northeast Denver. “These kids just amazed me,” Rogers says. He met the school’s dynamic principal, Vivian Wilson, who invited the lawyer to come visit the K-8 academy.
“So I went and took a look,” he says. “And what I found was a church-based school that’s not the finest facility in the world, but one that’s had a remarkable success rate in terms of educating kids.”
The school, established in 1973, serves 179 African American students. Tuition is $52 a week per child, but even that is more than many parents can afford. “I found out that the school was struggling to some extent,” he says, “because parents don’t always have the ability to pay. And I thought, That doesn’t make sense. These parents are paying taxes for their children to go to a public school, but the public school isn’t working for them. They’ve said, ‘We want something better for my kids, for our family.’ But when they seek an alternative for their kids, then they have to struggle to pay for it. I thought, Why shouldn’t tax dollars follow the child instead of the other way around?”
Rogers met with a number of parents, including Marvin and Sharlot Smith, whose son, Premore, is a 3rd grader at Excel. Sharlot, a claims analyst at a local insurance company, and Marvin, an order selector at a grocery warehouse, both attended public schools in Denver. When their son turned 4, they decided to enroll him in an early childhood program at their local elementary school. After just one semester, Premore’s teacher urged the Smiths to place their son in a special education class. “But there was no evidence as to why he should be in there,” Sharlot says. “I said, ‘There is no way I’m letting you put my son in special education.’ We were so upset that we went right over to Excel, which my sister had told me about. That’s when I first met Mrs. Wilson, the principal. I showed her the form they had wanted me to sign. She looked at it and shook her head.” The Smiths enrolled their son on the spot.
At first, Premore struggled at the rigorous school, where students wear uniforms and teachers follow a back-to-basics curriculum. But now he’s an A student. “I’m really proud of him,” his mother says. “He’s been the top speller in spelling bees. He likes to get up in front of people and give speeches. He loves to read. He loves homework. He loves school.”
As Rogers listened to similar tales of anger and frustration, an idea came to him: Why not sue the Denver Public Schools for breach of contract? The way he saw it, the 68,000-student district had failed to live up to its implicit promise to provide a quality education to all its students. “Many white parents have already opted out of the school system by taking their kids to private schools, or they’ve gotten out altogether by moving to another county,” he says. “So what you have in Denver is an entire class of people who don’t have the option of sending their kids elsewhere. In effect, they’re relegated to poor- quality schools.”
Rogers formed the Denver Parents Association, an organization made up of about 40 African American parents, many of whose children attend either Excel or Watch Care Academy, another private school. Sharlot Smith and John Wilkins, whose daughter attends a Denver public elementary school, were named co-chairs of the group. “The number one response I heard from people was, ‘Thank God somebody’s doing something,’ ” Rogers says. Working with the parents, the lawyer drafted a complaint—Denver Parents Association vs. Denver Board of Education—which he filed on May 7, 1997.
‘What this whole effort shows is a disrespect for the efforts that are being done by teachers and administrators, a disrespect for students who are achieving.’
Irv Moscowitz, superintendent, Denver Public Schools
That same day, Rogers led a noon rally in front of the Denver City and County Building, where the lawsuit was filed. About 50 parents and 120 students listened as Rogers lambasted the Denver Public Schools. “This is Brown vs. Board of Education revisited,” he said. Sherdyne Cornish, a veteran DPS math teacher and a plaintiff, told the crowd, “DPS is committing a serious crime on our children.”
Also on hand were two of Rogers’ strongest supporters: Steve Schuck, a Colorado Springs developer and two-time Republican candidate for governor, and Tom Tancredo, president of the conservative Independence Institute, located in nearby Golden. Both were strong backers of a Colorado school-voucher proposal that voters soundly rejected in 1992. (Schuck is hoping to get a new voucher initiative on the ballot in November.)
Later that same day, school superintendent Irv Moscowitz held his own news conference to defend the Denver Public Schools and to criticize the lawsuit. “What this whole effort shows,” he said, “is a disrespect for the efforts that are being done by teachers and administrators, a disrespect for students who are achieving.” Yes, he admitted, the school system has its problems. But “our teachers and principals can only go so far. . . . Be constructive with us and try to work with us. I regard that as loyal dissent, loyal criticism. Be loyal to your children.” (Moscowitz declined to comment further on the lawsuit.)
Not surprisingly, Moscowitz’s remarks did not go over too well with Rogers and his supporters. “Any time a superintendent stands up and just blames parents, and does it with such arrogance as Mr. Moscowitz has been able to do, he won’t be around very long,” Rogers says. “It’s unfortunate that he would choose to take that attitude among the very people that he’s here to serve. But administrators often take the attitude, ‘We know what’s best for your child. We’re the professional educators.’ Well, I think he’s forgotten where his paycheck comes from.”
The amended version of Denver Parents Association vs. Denver Board of Education contains 74 pages of names followed by 21 pages of argument. In language flush with anger, it accuses the district of, in effect, betraying its students and their parents. “The Denver Public School system’s primary responsibility is to provide a quality, standard to above-standard education for children,” it asserts. “By any objective (and subjective) measure, the system has failed miserably.” Test scores are well below the national average. The graduation rate for Hispanics is a jaw-dropping 49 percent; for African Americans, the rate is 64 percent; for whites, 75 percent. “More and more parents simply choose to opt out altogether rather than put up with inadequate schools for their kids,” the lawsuit says. But poor and middle-income parents suffer “significant hardship” when they elect to send their children to private schools, and worse, they still must pay taxes to support the public schools. “This is discriminatory and unfair,” the complaint alleges.
The lawsuit ends with a list of demands: The district must improve quality and academic standards. It must increase the knowledge and basic skills of students. It must continue to use the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to measure the academic progress of students. It must issue report cards for each school. It must end its practice of transferring “bad” teachers to other schools in the system. It must add more charter schools and alternative schools. Lastly, the district must implement a voucher system, whereby low- and middle-income parents would be able to use an unspecified portion of their tax dollars to pay “for whatever school they find best for the education of their children, whether public or private.” If parents elect to send their children to public schools in other counties, the district must pay transportation costs.
In conversation, Rogers downplays the lawsuit’s demand for vouchers. “I wouldn’t say that’s the main thing,” he says. “That’s just one of the components.” But it’s clear that he sees vouchers as a sort of catchall remedy that will improve the quality of education for minority students while saving the public school system.
Under a voucher system, he predicts, “I think you will have a lot of people who opt out of the Denver Public Schools. In the short run, that will happen because they’re going to want better-quality schools. They’re frustrated with the quality that exists now. So, many parents will choose to take their children elsewhere. What that will do is to force significant improvement in the Denver Public Schools. You’re going to see that happen. Frankly, they’ll have additional resources in place to help the kids who remain in the school system.”
|There’s no question that the Denver school system is grappling with some serious problems.|
Tom Tancredo, who provided some of the ammunition for Rogers’ lawsuit, agrees. A former public school teacher, he later worked for the U.S. Department of Education under presidents Reagan and Bush. (On a wall in his office is a large poster of Ronald Reagan wearing a white cowboy hat.) But he is now a vocal critic of the public schools, and he preaches the gospel of vouchers whenever he has the opportunity.
“Escape—that’s the bottom line,” he says. “Vouchers will allow parents to take their children out of a very bad system. Some will choose to stay incarcerated—and maybe the system serves their purposes. But others are trying desperately to find something better.”
There’s no question that the Denver school system is grappling with some serious problems. A mandatory desegregation plan implemented in 1973 was dismantled three years ago, ending court-ordered busing. But by then, many whites had already abandoned the system. Hispanics now make up 48 percent of the student body, followed by whites, 25 percent, and blacks, 21 percent.
More than half the district’s students are eligible for the federal free-lunch program, twice the statewide rate. About 13,000 students are considered limited-English proficient, an increase of 4,000 students from just five years ago. That’s largely due to an influx of Spanish-speaking children in the elementary grades.
Last July, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights found that the district was failing to adequately teach students with limited English skills. The program is being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Meanwhile, reading scores for all students—but especially for those who attend schools in low-income neighborhoods—lag behind the national average.
District officials were encouraged by the results of a February reading test showing that students improved since they were tested last September. For several years now, the district has made reading a top priority, hiring 300 assistants to help teach the subject in 1st and 2nd grades. Last summer, it implemented a mandatory summer reading program for 3rd, 5th, and 8th grade students with the lowest test scores. And a reading program called Jump Start has resulted in some impressive gains at four middle schools.
But despite these glimmers of hope, many Denver residents continue to believe that the school system simply isn’t doing enough to educate its students, particularly those who are Hispanic or African American.
Last May, a survey of Denver voters by Ciruli Associates found that 93 percent of blacks and 80 percent of Hispanics agree that “some children in the Denver public school system are receiving a substandard education.”
“People are sick and tired of being sick and tired,” says John Wilkins, the co-chair of Rogers’ parent association.
“I don’t think that anyone in the school district would say that there isn’t anything to criticize,” says school board member Laura Lefkowits. “We have lots and lots of issues in Denver that don’t exist anywhere else in the state.” But vouchers, she adds, aren’t the answer. “Vouchers will take money away from the school district and put it into the hands of families who already have some means to send their kids to private schools. It will create an even more elitist system.”
Beverly Ausfahl, president of the Colorado Education Association, agrees. “We believe there is a legitimate place for private schools,” she says. “What we are opposed to is using public dollars to fund those private schools.” Besides, she adds, “Private schools have always had the right to say who will be admitted, and they have always had the right to get rid of students they don’t want. And they don’t have to provide specialized services, either.” So how, she asks, will a voucher system benefit the students who need the most attention?
Tancredo counters such criticism with a Utopian vision of a national, voucher-based school system, which he believes is inevitable. “I don’t care if whatever system exists after this thing is done is called public or private,” he says. “I think we’ll have a very difficult time distinguishing them from one another. I think public schools will become entrepreneurial. I think they will figure out ways to keep kids there. They’ve got talented people, a huge infrastructure. They’ve got all this they could use to be successful. And if they are, that’s fine with me. My guess is that public schools will survive, and my guess is they will thrive. I believe a rising tide will lift all boats.”
Tancredo, who recently resigned from the Independence Institute to pursue a possible bid for Congress, calls Rogers’ lawsuit “a brilliant idea. I can’t tell you how much I admire Joe for coming up with this.” But he’s the first to admit that Rogers faces a tough battle in court. “The courts have ruled in the past, I think, that all a district has to do is show good faith,” he says, “and if no one gets educated, it’s not really their fault. So I know Joe is going to have to overcome legal precedence. DPS has already responded by saying, ‘Throw this thing out.’ ”
Indeed, district lawyers, citing a number of legal grounds, have filed a motion asking Judge Herbert Stern III to dismiss Rogers’ lawsuit. “The overwhelming majority of courts have rejected educational malpractice claims,” the motion asserts. The school district, it argues, cannot be blamed for students’ low test scores because “low pass rates may be indicative of factors having nothing to do with the instruction.” Further, the breach of contract argument doesn’t hold up because “the lack of a contractual relationship in the public elementary or secondary school context is obvious.”
|In 1992, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., filed lawsuits similar to Rogers’ in Los Angeles and Chicago.|
In 1992, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public-interest law firm based in Washington, D.C., filed lawsuits similar to Rogers’ in Los Angeles and Chicago. Though neither was a class action, each essentially argued that the district and state had not fulfilled their obligation to the public. Both cases were eventually rejected by state appeals courts.
“These kinds of cases are usually publicity stunts,” argues Michael Simpson, assistant general counsel for the National Education Association. He acknowleges that he is not familiar with Rogers’ suit.
Both of Denver’s daily newspapers have editorialized against Denver Parents Association vs. Denver Board of Education. “Achievement in some Denver schools is abysmal, as the lawsuit alleges,” acknowledged the Rocky Mountain News, which supports vouchers. But such a “radical break” from current school policy “should be made through the political process—meaning legislation or a citizen initiative—rather than be mandated by an unelected judge.” Meanwhile, the Denver Post called the suit “misguided.” Yes, the district has “ill-served” its poorer students. “But the answer is not a class action court case,” the paper argued. “It would be far more productive if the participants joined the efforts that DPS and concerned parents already have under way, efforts that could improve public education for all students, but especially for youngsters who today are academically deprived.”
Earl and Sherdyne Cornish were among the first parents to sign on to the lawsuit, but now they’ve lost faith—in both the legal action and in Joe Rogers. “In our opinion,” Earl says, “we think the court’s going to throw it out. It’s too broad in scope.” Rogers, he believes, initiated the suit for one reason: “To get elected. It’s all about politics.”
“He wants to be able to say to the community, ‘These are some things that I have done,’ ” Sherdyne says. “You know, you’ve got to have a platform. But education is not his area.”
“He’s a dilettante,” Earl says.
The Cornishes operate a nonprofit dropout-prevention effort called the Academic Skills Program, which has been used in some Denver public schools. But they are also longtime critics of the school system. Indeed, Sherdyne, a veteran DPS mathematics teacher, is something of a professional gadfly. “I have a long history of fighting with the Denver Public Schools because they’re not educating all students,” she says.
Last May, Cornish, then teaching at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, was placed on administrative leave—four days after she publicly urged others to join Rogers’ suit. “They were retaliating against me,” says the teacher, who was later transferred to another middle school. DPS spokesman Mark Stevens says the action was “totally unrelated to any political involvement.” It was, he says, a personnel matter. But Cornish was unconvinced, and she filed her own suit against the district, accusing superintendent Moscowitz of violating her First Amendment rights. (Initially, Rogers represented Cornish, but she has since switched to a different lawyer.)
|The Cornishes believe that Rogers, in effect, used them—and they’re angry about it.|
At the end of last summer, Sherdyne Cornish decided to run for the school board. “I want to be part of a level where I can make a difference—at the board level,” she said at a press conference. But in November, voters elected incumbent Bennie Milliner, albeit by a narrow margin. Cornish says she may run again in the future.
Meanwhile, the Cornishes are as outspoken as ever. They may have given up on Joe Rogers, but they remain adamant proponents of vouchers and intend to keep their names on the lawsuit. “We’d better do something about our schools,” Earl says. “The problem is that the schools have a monopoly. And you’ve got to at least establish laws that say other groups can start schools and can take tax-based moneys. We need that in order to make people do their jobs. It’s just human nature for people to mess up when they’ve got a monopoly.”
The Cornishes believe that Rogers, in effect, used them—and they’re angry about it. “He needed us to provide him with the information he needed for the class action suit,” Sherdyne says. But then he dropped the ball. “We don’t know anything about the lawsuit right now,” she says. “Joe hasn’t communicated with people who are part of it. It’s kind of like, ‘All we needed you for was to sign the petition, and now I can do what I want to do.’ We’ve talked to several people whose names are on it, and they know nothing about what’s going on with it.”
Earl adds: “Don’t you think that if you’ve got a class action lawsuit, wouldn’t you set up a mechanism in advance to put out a monthly newsletter to explain where things are? Something that would go to every party in that lawsuit to keep them informed? Or maybe you would form a committee of the parents’ association to meet with once a month and report to and disseminate information about the suit. He hasn’t done any of that.”
Not so, says Rogers. “The parents’ association meets twice every month, typically,” he says. “And we did send out one newsletter. We’re planning on sending out another one, but it’s become more difficult now that we have so many plaintiffs.”
Told that the Cornishes don’t think the lawsuit will win in court, Rogers is dumbfounded. “They said that?” he asks. Then he provides an explanation for their stinging remarks. When he agreed to represent Cornish in her lawsuit against the school district, Rogers waived his usual fee but asked for $350 a month in expenses. Cornish agreed, he says, and in fact paid him for one month. But then, he claims, she stopped paying him, so he dropped the case. And he hasn’t heard from them since. “Sometimes things go sour,” he says.
Vivian Wilson, principal of Union Baptist Excel Institute, pokes her head into one of the school’s 4th grade classrooms. Almost immediately, the 15 or so students look up from their desks and, in unison, shout, “Good morning, Mrs. Wilson.” The principal, a tall woman elegantly dressed in an off-white business suit, smiles and says, “Good morning, boys and girls.”
Later, outside the classroom, Wilson says, “We don’t pick the cream of the crop. A lot of the kids come here with problems. But we’re the ones who have to shape those children and give them some direction.”
Wilson runs a tight ship. Her school, in a predominantly low-income neighborhood in Northeast Denver, is clean and tidy. There’s no graffiti anywhere to be seen. Students wear blue uniforms—plaid jumpers for the girls, blue oxford-cloth shirts with bow ties for the boys. Classrooms are orderly, with desks arranged in perfect rows. When teachers talk, students listen—or else. “It’s very basic,” Wilson says.
The $52-a-week tuition amounts to $1,872 for the nine-month school year. Though that’s less than half of the average amount DPS spends for each of its students, Excel has managed to achieve some impressive results. Most of the students, Wilson says, go on to college. “We get the job done,” she says simply.
But running a private school like Excel can be expensive. “It’s not an easy operation as far as costs are concerned,” she says. “The expenses are phenomenal.” When a hot water tank broke recently, Wilson was forced to suspend the school’s hot lunch program for three days until the tank could be replaced. The cost: $4,500. “We’re suffering, there’s no doubt,” she says. “But we believe in what we’re doing. And we believe that in the end, the Lord is going to make up the difference. And He has in so many ways.”
|Parents with few resources, Wilson believes, would benefit most from a voucher system. Which is why she’s a strong supporter of Joe Rogers’ lawsuit.|
What Wilson would really like to see, however, is a voucher system, one that would allow Excel’s parents to use their education tax dollars to pay for tuition. Obviously, the school would benefit from such an arrangement—assuming that a religious school could take public money without violating the U.S. Constitution. But that’s unclear. Last May, an Ohio appeals court ruled that Cleveland’s voucher program—which allows students to attend religious schools—was in violation of federal and state constitutional bans on government aid to religious institutions. But the Ohio Supreme Court has allowed the program to continue while it reviews the lower court’s decision.
Parents with few resources, Wilson believes, would benefit most from a voucher system. Which is why she’s a strong supporter of Joe Rogers’ lawsuit. “When you talk about vouchers,” she says, “I’m for them. I don’t want people to feel captive. I don’t want their children to have to have an insufficient and inadequate education because their parents don’t have money.”
A number of Excel students, Wilson says, transferred to the institute from public schools in Denver. “And some of them can’t even read three-letter words,” she says. “They’re so far behind when they get here.”
But like many church-affiliated school administrators, Wilson would be unwilling to sacrifice Excel’s religious orientation for the sake of public dollars. “We’re not going to do that,” she says firmly. “Because we do have a moral stand, and that moral stand is going to discriminate. It can’t help but do that. For example, we believe that all instructors here should have a knowledge of Christ and a belief in Him because when you’re trying to teach kids moral character, Christ is the supreme example.”
Asked if she thinks Rogers’ lawsuit stands a chance of winning in court, she closes her eyes and says, “I pray to God, I pray to God.”
For now, however, Denver Parents Association vs. Denver Board of Education is in the hands of the powerful, yet mortal, Judge Stern, whom Rogers describes as “tough, no nonsense.” He’s confident the lawsuit will survive the motions to dismiss, but even if it doesn’t, the case, he says, will go forward. “We’ll file an appeal right away,” he promises. “This will probably end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, one way or another.” He almost sounds as if he hopes it does.
Rogers is now devoting more time to his political campaign—the primary is in August—so he plans to hire someone as executive director of the Denver Parents Association. (Rogers will continue to represent the association in court.) He has also approached foundations about getting some financial support for the legal battle. “That would be very nice,” he says. “I’ve already put in tens of thousands of dollars of my own resources into this.”
Meanwhile, Rogers and his wife, Juanita, recently made an important decision: Their oldest son, Trent, now 3 years old, will not be attending a Denver public school. “He’s going to go to Union Excel,” Rogers says.