Class Action

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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,
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."

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