Who Needs School Choice?

Published February 1, 2004

A single mother of two girls, Caitlin and Faith, and one boy, Jacob, Yvonne Trujillo is struggling to give her children the hope she enjoyed as a little girl.

Growing up, Yvonne attended Annunciation School, a Catholic school in Denver, Colorado. Her teachers, often nuns, were strict disciplinarians, but they tempered their authority with compassion.

Since then, Yvonne has married, had three children, and was divorced about three and a half years ago. With her former husband, her sister, and her mother watching the children, she can work as a part-time cashier at the Kroger grocery store.

Although not impressed by the school’s achievement scores, last year Yvonne sent her oldest child, Jacob, to Gilpin Elementary in Denver. Just 1 in 5 Gilpin fourth- graders are reading at a proficient or advanced level; in writing, the numbers are less than 1 in 16.

Jacob found himself at the bottom of Gilpin’s low achievement levels. Despite having poor grades and being “way behind average,” he was promoted to second grade. Dissatisfied, Yvonne transferred him to Swansea Elementary, another public school in her neighborhood. Swansea has better test scores than Gilpin, but its students are still failing. Roughly 1 in 3 Swansea fourth-graders read or write at a proficient or advanced level.

Academics, though, were not Jacob’s only problem. Like many first-grade boys, he often had trouble sitting still in class. He would talk out of turn or disturb his classmates. One day he and four friends went to the bathroom, where they quickly found some mischief. It started with the water, then the paper towels. Soon they were throwing sopping balls of paper towels at the ceiling, hoping some would stick.

Predictably, they were caught. When Yvonne came in to discuss the incident with Jacob’s principal, she was upset. While not absolving Jacob of responsibility, she couldn’t understand why Jacob’s teacher had given bathroom passes to five first-grade boys at the same time. Any teacher should have known that combination would not end well.

About this time Yvonne heard that the Colorado legislature was enacting a parental choice plan. Because she lives in the Denver school district–one of the 11 failing districts required to participate in the program–she hoped the plan would help Jacob attend Annunciation, the same elementary school she attended as a child.

A coalition opposing parental choice filed suit to stop the plan. The coalition alleged the Colorado plan violated a state constitutional requirement guaranteeing local control of education. Yvonne was stunned when Judge Meyer agreed with that view and halted the program.

“He knows that the opportunity is for the kids, so why do we have to keep going back and fighting?” she asks.

Of course, for Yvonne that isn’t just a hypothetical question. Caitlin and Faith are about to start in the same schools that are already failing Jacob.

Royce Van Tassell is executive director of Education Excellence Utah. His email address is [email protected].