No Legislation, No Problem in Colorado

Published September 1, 2006

There is no school reform legislation on the ballot this November in Colorado. Nevertheless, as kids head back to school in Colorado Springs, Steve Schuck and his staff at Parents Challenge are happy to know some of those students and their families have a choice about where they’ll attend this year.

Thanks to support from Parents Challenge and its donors, about 150 students will attend the school of their choice this fall–something that almost happened statewide in 2004 when voters approved the creation of Opportunity Contracts, a voucher program allowing low-income families in underperforming schools to send their children to private schools. On June 28, 2004, however, the Colorado Supreme Court struck down the measure under the “local control” provision of the state constitution.

“It was a poor decision issued by a biased, liberal bench,” Schuck says, calling it “judicial legislation spitting in the face of the majority of Colorado citizens.”

Lack of state funding has moved Parents Challenge to approach donors individually and look to foundations for money. The process has been successful, but nothing like the windfall successful school choice legislation would yield for parents.

Getting Active

Undeterred by the court’s decision regarding publicly funded scholarships, Parents Challenge continues to fight for school choice on the grassroots level. As part of its program, parents attend empowerment sessions that train them to move from the sidelines to activism and to understand their self-interests in winning the reform battle–a concept with which many low-income families aren’t comfortable.

“Some parents will move into activism eventually; some won’t,” explained Parents Challenge Executive Director Evelyn Taylor. “We won’t stop helping families, though, no matter where they are on the political spectrum. Children deserve a good education.”

Low-income families that meet the requirements for the federal free- and reduced-price lunch program are invited to apply for three areas of financial help: $3,000 private school tuition scholarships, $500 homeschooling grants, or $700 grants to public school students for tutoring or transportation.

Advocating Quality

The private school tuition has earned Schuck a few enemies among teachers’ union supporters, he said.

“I’m not anti-public schools, period. What I am for is to have all parents be able to choose whatever school they think is best for their children,” Schuck said. “If detractors would simply look at our program, they’d see we offer parents the option to [keep their children] in public school and help their kids with tutoring. What I am is anti-bad schools.”

By offering grants to families in the public school system for supplemental educational services, Parents Challenge has set itself apart from most private scholarship programs.

Several families, including Leon Murphy’s, are taking advantage of that option. Leon’s mother, Joanna, has moved him from public school to private school and back to public school as he enters his junior year of high school.

“We just found out he has dyslexia,” Joanna explained. “Wasson High School [a public high school near the Murphys’ home in Colorado Springs] has tools to help him with that. The grant from Parents Challenge will go for more tutoring and services.”

Seeking Help

In 2001, Schuck began the Parents Challenge program with a focus on Adams Elementary, a low-performing school in Colorado Springs’ District 11, enraging many educators who believed he was trying to take money away from an institution that claimed it needed more funding. But the false accusation didn’t keep Parents Challenge from quickly filling its 90 available slots; 300 children applied that first year.

Five years later, Schuck is looking to the community, foundations, and business leaders to help his organization bring choice to more students.

“Our city is viewed by most as a great place to live,” Schuck said. “And it is. But too many of our families–mostly poor and of color–have no choice but to send their kids to failing schools in their neighborhood. We are committed to helping as many of them as our funding will allow.

“But this challenge is bigger than me,” Schuck acknowledged. “It’s bigger than any one man can handle.”

Aaron Atwood ([email protected]) is a client services manager with The Elevation Group, a consulting company in Colorado Springs, Colorado.