|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.