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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

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.

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.

"It's frustrating," said Ms. Teague, who spoke with WORLD in the kitchen of her small home in a Denver suburb where residents are predominantly African-American and Hispanic. "You see that your child can do well, but they're kind of stuck. If they're doing well at a school that's failing, how much more could they do if they were challenged, given more one-on-one attention, and exposed to more technology?"

Though her girls wouldn't qualify for Colorado vouchers academically, Ms. Teague, who works as an operations specialist for a financial services firm, joined the lawsuit as a defendant to show her support for educational opportunity. She doesn't think parents on the other side of the issue understand what it's like to be economically trapped in substandard schools: "They don't realize that a good education is the one thing that can help you get out of a bad economic situation."

Anti-voucher parent Danielle Waagmeester said she thinks pro-voucher parents don't understand the repercussions that a tax-funded private education will bring. "The voucher program will hurt all kids," Mrs. Waagmeester said in the spotless living room of her Aurora, Colo., home. While speaking with WORLD, she kept an eye on a family cat as it stood on its hind legs to flirt with the flame on a scented candle. "It's a diversion of funds and attention that will do more harm than good."

Mrs. Waagmeester calls herself an activist; she volunteered at a battered women's shelter before community college courses in management began eating up her time. She and her husband became plaintiffs in the voucher lawsuit through her role as a programs team leader in the school's PTA.

But she wants it understood that she would have joined the suit no matter what. "I subscribe strongly to the idea that it takes a village to raise a child. We need to ask why kids are failing in public schools and see what we can do to address that. That's the responsibility of all citizens. That's in the [state] Constitution." Mrs. Waagmeester also doesn't think taxpayers should have to subsidize religious instruction they oppose. But like other plaintiff parents WORLD spoke with, church-state separation wasn't as big an issue as was the diversion of money from public education.

Madison Waagmeester, 6 years old and blonde like her mom, told WORLD she's looking forward to first grade. But more than anything, Madison said, she's looking forward to getting her new Barbie lunchbox. She'll tote that around the corner from her house to Tollgate Elementary School, in the Aurora school district. Meanwhile, her sister Rachel, 9, will travel about five miles from home to attend Quest Academy, a public magnet school for gifted children. As might be expected, Quest kids blew away the 2003 CSAP, with 91 to 100 percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading, writing, and math. Only about one in 10 students is low-income.

If the metro-Denver area were a Monopoly game, pro- and anti-voucher families involved in this lawsuit would live on opposite sides of the board: Pro-voucher families on the light blue properties-Oriental, Vermont, Connecticut-and anti-voucher families somewhere between orange New York Avenue and yellow Marvin Gardens.

Golden, Colo., plaintiff and defendant families typify the divide. The mountain-view home of plaintiffs Howard and Carolyn Bartels, for example, is nestled in Golden's pine-studded foothills. Streets in their neighborhood wind past custom two-story homes of brick and cedar tucked into thick stands of blue spruce. The area is home to doctors, lawyers, retired colonels and, according to neighborhood postman Wayne Long, two Colorado state lottery winners. ("Nine million and $12 million," he said with a confidential smile. "But I won't tell you which houses.")

The Bartelses' rear windows look toward the home of voucher-program defendant Rosa Morales. A single mom raising two sons, Ms. Morales lives in an older apartment complex adjacent to a juvenile-corrections facility in the shallow valley below the Bartelses' home. The complex accepts tenants who use Section 8 government rental assistance; the Morales boys qualify for government-subsidized school lunches.

According to 2000 census data, the average of median household incomes in zip codes where pro-voucher families live is $33,337 compared with $51,954 for families who don't want vouchers. Is the lawsuit, then, a battle between the "haves" and the "have-nots"?

Colorado Education Association spokesperson Deborah Fallin couldn't say why no low-income families had come forward to join the union in opposing vouchers. "We didn't go into poor and minority neighborhoods in Denver to look for someone to prop up our side.... We didn't pit this 'poor little child' against that 'poor little child.'" She added wryly, "I won't characterize the other side as having done that either."

Ms. Fallin chalked up the differences between pro- and anti-voucher families to a basic philosophical difference: "We on the anti-voucher side believe that the best way to meet the needs of all children, current and future, is by strengthening all of our public schools for all of those children."

For Patsy Hill, that's not happening quickly enough. A single mother since her sons Jonathan and Antonio were babies, Ms. Hill, a self-employed manicurist, volunteered regularly at Jonathan's schools from preschool until third grade. But she yanked Jonathan out of Aurora public schools when he was 8, after his third-grade teacher called one evening to say that Jonathan couldn't read.

"I knew that wasn't true," Ms. Hill told WORLD. "Jonathan had been reading since preschool."

The next day, Ms. Hill took Jonathan to the school, where he proceeded to read two grade-level books aloud to the teacher. "He's reading now," Ms. Hill told the teacher. "What do you think the problem is?"

When the teacher had no answer, Ms. Hill marched down to the office. The principal didn't know what the problem was either, Ms. Hill remembers. "I said, 'Then I'm taking him out of school,' and the principal just said, 'OK.' There was no 'Let's see what the problem is,' or 'Is there anything we can do better?' It was just, basically, 'Bye.'"

Since then, Ms. Hill has structured her manicuring business-she's in demand because she makes house calls-around homeschooling Jonathan and Antonio, now 13 and 10. But, hoping to place the boys in a more formal school setting, she recently began seeking information on private-school scholarships, because she can't afford the tuition on her own. That's when she heard about COCP and joined the lawsuit to show her support.

Ms. Hill has also decided to give public schools another try in hopes of securing vouchers. The family lives in a failing district and qualifies economically. But Ms. Hill seemed surprised to learn her kids, both good students, would have to be failing in at least one academic area to qualify.

That feature of the Colorado program distinguishes it from others, such as the Cleveland plan affirmed by the Supreme Court. Institute for Justice attorney Richard Komer said he doesn't believe the student-performance wrinkle undercuts the legality of the Colorado plan. "But from a policy perspective, what is unusual is that it may create an incentive for failure. If you're an otherwise eligible parent, but you know that your kid is smart, what's to prevent you from telling your child, 'Blow the test'?"

Still, Mr. Komer said, it's rational to try and focus limited resources on the neediest children-those with both economic and academic challenges. "It may not prove to be the best way to run a railroad ... but that's one of the advantages of having 50 states with 50 different programs. You can see what works best."

Plaintiff parent Alan DeLollis doesn't believe any publicly funded private education program will-or should-work: If parents choose education alternatives outside of public education, he said, that's their privilege and their right. "But they shouldn't be using public funds."

A senior producer for the City of Denver's Internet and television department, Mr. DeLollis is married to a public-school elementary teacher, Deborah Brennan. The couple lives off Denver's "Antique Row" in Platt Park, a trendy urban area where some homebuyers are fixing up houses built between 1910 and 1940. The DeLollises also own a mountain cabin in Fairplay, Colo.

Cameron DeLollis, 14, will start high school this year, majoring in cinematography at Denver School of the Arts (DSA), a public magnet school. Eleven percent of DSA students are low-income; 2003 CSAP test scores are high in reading and writing (75 to 95 percent of sixth- through 10th-graders scored at or above proficient), and lower in math (44 to 65 percent of students scored at or above proficient.)

Asked how long parents of children in failing public schools should wait for improvement before agitating for change, Mr. DeLollis remained firm in his support of public education: "I don't think that's a decision we should make. As a social contract, [citizens] have agreed to fund a public-school system and that's what we should do."

Meanwhile, Angelia Teague believes the social contract has failed her daughters. To anti-voucher parents, she had this to say: "I want what's best for my children just like you. I pay taxes, just like you. Why can't I use my tax money to prepare my children for their future? Knowledge can take my children places they otherwise wouldn't be able to go."

Lynn Vincent

Lynn Vincent

Lynn is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine and the best-selling author of 10 non-fiction books.