First Person

Voices: One year since Dougco voucher ruling

Cindy Barnard, a Douglas County parent who became a plaintiff in the lawsuit suspending the district’s voucher pilot, looks back at the year since a judge halted the plan.

August 12, 2011 was a great day for public education. One year has passed since Judge Michael Martinez ruled to halt the Douglas County School District’s voucher program. I thought I’d write a brief history, a summary of Judge Martinez’s ruling, and discuss where we are today in the battle to support public education.

Rob Ross, Dougco's legal counsel, was among those defending the voucher pilot at a press conference the day after two lawsuits were filed to stop it. The suits were later combined.

The district created a “School Choice Task Force.” The first meeting, invitation only, was held in June 2010. Invitees to this private meeting included folks from the Independence Institute. I was invited to the July meeting and, wanting to make sure that neighborhood schools were considered a choice, I joined the neighborhood school subcommittee. I attended subcommittee meetings but was unable to attend the two general meetings held in August and September. Minutes were not taken at any of the general meetings and the public was not invited until the third meeting in August.

The subcommittee on “Option Certificates” presented their work at the October meeting. Before this time, I believed that all committees were simply brainstorming and that committees were comprised of volunteers. That is until Eric Hall, Colorado Springs attorney, presented the Option Certificate Program in board policy format. I began to understand that this subcommittee was not all volunteer or simply brainstorming. Needless to say, I was not the only person working on the Task Force that was shocked at the presentation of the voucher program.

Upon further investigation, it became apparent that the Option Certificate Program was following guidelines and a formula for implementation put forth by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC. A summary of our research of ALEC can be found in our Connecting the Dots document. Clearly, the direction for our once high-performing school district was now being heavily influenced by a powerful outside national organization, not Douglas County citizens.

Taxpayers for Public Education formed very quickly. Our mission: to advocate and support public education. We began speaking in opposition to the program at school board meetings, to friends, family and anyone we met on the street. A frenzy of letter-writing campaigns targeting Douglas County school board members, the Colorado Department of Education, the State Board of Education and to legislators went, for the most part, unanswered.

The Douglas County school board voted to move forward with the Option Certificate Program on March 15, 2011. Upon the advice of the Colorado Department of Education, the program was renamed the “Choice Scholarship Program.”

Taxpayers for Public Education, after working tirelessly within district channels to try to stop the program, filed suit against the Douglas County School District, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado State Board of Education on June 21, 2011.

A hearing for a preliminary injunction was heard in Denver District Court on August 2-4, 2011. Judge Martinez not only ruled to grant our request for a preliminary injunction, he granted a permanent injunction, thus stopping the illegal voucher program. The judge supported his decision with very extensive findings of fact, all of which are supported by direct citations to documents or testimony. The judge also very carefully analyzed the facts and law of the important legal precedents and either carefully matched them or carefully distinguished them from the district’s voucher program. A summary of the key points in his findings are as follows:

  • The judge ruled in our favor on six different points of law. The court found that the voucher program violates: (1) Art. IX sec 7 of the Colorado Constitution, because the school district can’t give money to aid schools controlled by churches and sectarian institutions; (2) Art. II sec 4 of the Colorado Constitution, violation of “no compelled support” of religious sects clause; (3) Art. X sec 8 of the Colorado Constitution, forbidding religious test for admission to public school, required attendance at religious service at public school, and teaching of religious tenets at public school; (4) Public School Finance Act requirement of “uniform” funding; (5) Art. V sec 34 of Colorado Constitution, forbidding appropriation of educational funds for sectarian institutions; and (6) Art. IX sec 3 of the Colorado Constitution prohibiting public school fund from being used for anything but public schools.
  • The judge also ruled against the two affirmative defenses that the district and the state put forward, ruling that the U.S. Constitution does not prevent a court from enforcing the specific provisions of the Colorado Constitution, and that the other public-private programs that the state kept pointing to were irrelevant to this program.

As expected, in April 2012, the Douglas County school board filed an appeal in hopes of overturning the district court’s decision. Because Judge Martinez originally found in our favor on six different points of law, if any of these legal bases are upheld, the injunction will stand. All of the parties have now submitted briefs to the state Court of Appeals, and we await the appellate court’s notification of a hearing date.

The Douglas County School District is quickly approaching $1 million in legal fees alone for the voucher program. In round numbers, $82,000 was spent to develop the program and, as of July 2012, $828,000 has thus far been spent in defense of the program. And the legal fees will continue to mount.

In addition, the district distributed over $300,000 to private schools in July and August 2011, after the lawsuit had been filed. To date, $25,162 has not been returned to the district by private schools.

Douglas County school board members passed a resolution to establish a legal defense fund simultaneously with their vote to implement the illegal voucher program. Private donations from organizations outside Douglas County have accounted for $805,000 of the $807,446 contributed to the fund. The district’s recently-hired community relations officer, Cinamon Watson, formerly worked for ALEC. The outside influences continue to mount as well.

Not accounting for the district’s own personnel resources that have been involved in the development and defense of the illegal voucher program, the outstanding balance of $127,368 represents local and state tax dollars earmarked for the education of Douglas County public school students.

Our fabulous attorneys with Faegre Baker & Daniels and Alex Halpern have generously donated their time and expertise and have absorbed many of our expenses. However, we do have a significant legal bill to pay in order to continue to fight the illegal voucher program. I thank you in advance for your continued support.

Yes, August 12, 2011 was a great day for public education. And as we pass the anniversary of Judge Martinez’s decision, we at Taxpayers for Public Education are very aware that the privatization of public education is a national issue and an issue we will continue to fight.

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.