Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Lobato Opportunity

Until May 21 of this year, when I graduated from Colorado College, formal education was central to my identity. I was a student and I had been for nearly my entire life. Growing up, I had the good fortune to attend pre-school and then continue through a very competent public school system in the suburbs of Philadelphia. My family is also a family of educators. My grandmother was a teacher and both my mother and my oldest sister work in education. So I must admit I am biased.  I believe that a quality education is a right that no child should be without. A competent system of education represents an investment in our society’s future, a future that will be created through the opportunity we give to our students today. But, as I have seen many times throughout my life, this right to a quality education is frequently denied, often to those who are disadvantaged in other ways as well.
                The Constitution of the State of Colorado specifically guarantees the government will provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public education. Surely, with a constitutional guarantee, Colorado’s children must enjoy a fantastic education in every district, in every county across the entire state. But, according to many throughout Colorado, this is not the case. Enter Lobato v. The State of Colorado. In 2005, a coalition of parents from across Colorado came together to confront what they saw as a woefully underfunded system of public schools. Their children were going to school in a system which was (and still is) funded well below the national per-pupil average through a combination of state revenue and local property tax revenues.

Per-pupil funding: Colorado v. National Average over time1
(Click to enlarge)

The group of parents, together with a number of Colorado school districts sued the state of Colorado claiming that Colorado’s public school finance system violates their rights granted by article IX, sections 2 and 15 of the Colorado Constitution which guarantee that the state will provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public education and that there will be “local control” over individual school districts.2 After the Colorado Supreme Court made its way through the legal question of whether the plaintiff’s claim was “justiciable,” the case was remanded back to the district court in 2009. Finally, on December 9, 2011, the district court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs stating, “Colorado's public school finance system is irrational, arbitrary, and severely underfunded” and therefore was in violation of the constitutional guarantee to a “thorough and uniform system” of public schools. Also, as a result of the systemic problems with the public school funding system, schools cannot be “locally” controlled as the state constitution mandates.3
                As you can imagine, the state is not particularly interested in accepting this ruling and they have appealed the district court’s ruling. The state claims several things. First, it maintains the budget process is an inherently political decision that is the responsibility of the executive and legislative branches, not the judiciary. Second, it claims that because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the Gallagher Amendment it is not likely that overall state revenues will increase. And, if the district court’s decision is upheld the education “slice” of the budgetary pie will grow larger without a similar increase in the size of the pie, thus crowding out other vital state funded programs.4
                As someone who is relatively new to the fiscal reality in Colorado as well as the legal realm, I am certainly not an authority on the inner workings of this trial. Nor can I predict how the Colorado Supreme Court will rule in the coming months. However, it seems to me that among all the political chatter surrounding this case, several important facts have been lost:
First, we must remember that this case is fundamentally about the children of Colorado. Every day that the Colorado public school system remains “unconscionable” the children of Colorado lose.
Second, Colorado’s schools are lacking in funding, a fact that even the state does not seem to disagree with. Although the state claims more money does not necessarily improve outcomes, more money can almost certainly guarantee better teachers, improved technology and smaller class sizes — three areas where Colorado ranks poorly relative to other states. For example, in 2009, Colorado was ranked 41st in terms of technology in our schools. In 2010, we were ranked 44th by the ratio our teachers are paid compared to other occupations and we ranked 40th in the median student-teacher ratio at primary schools.5
Third, because of the complex system of public school funding in Colorado, capital construction projects receive very little state funding. This means that the burden of improving school facilities or updating aging school infrastructure falls largely on local property taxes. This in turn leads to uneven capital development across the state. For example, the court’s opinion found that “the wealthiest district has 20,000 percent more capital capacity than the poorest”. Or, as district court Judge Sheila Rappaport put it, “relying on local district funding is inequitable, is inadequate, and has produced an enormous backlog of school capital needs across the state, resulting in serious health and safety problems in school buildings across Colorado”.6 To provide a school system where a child on one side of an imaginary line has access to a better, safer and healthier environment whereas a child across that line only has access to the opposite, is to lay the foundation for a state that cannot begin to provide equal opportunity for all Coloradans.
To many people the Lobato case is about budgetary restrictions or legislation such as TABOR. The outcome of the case, many say, will have large ramifications for the rest of the budget and create an uncomfortable position, almost a punishment, for our elected officials. However, the district court did not specify how the legislature should increase funding or what methods should be used to increase funding. Instead, the court gave the legislature an opportunity. It is an opportunity that requires tough decisions and maybe politically unfavorable positions (support raising taxes through a referendum or support the repeal of TABOR for example). But, it is also an opportunity for the legislature to uphold our state’s constitution, ensure that the children of Colorado are prepared for the future, make our state a better place to raise a family and lay the foundation for a more prosperous Colorado. In the long run, if this opportunity is squandered we will all pay the price.

Andrew Ball
CC/Rice Fellow

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