Denver judge made assumptions about funding, school performance

“The Court finds that the Colorado public school finance system is unconstitutional.” Lobato v. Colorado, decided Dec. 9, 2011.

So taxpayers should probably begin deciding how much more they want to pay and/or what sort of cuts in services they would like to see take place until enough money is placed into school funding to satisfy the courts.

All of this is likely to transpire because of a Denver District Court ruling that found the Colorado Constitution’s provision that the state, “establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” cannot be met by the present school funding system.

There’s a lot more in the opinion, which is 182 pages long and scholarly. The upshot is that by establishing performance-based standards at the federal and state level and using a school finance system that is largely based on decisions by local taxpayers, the state cannot meet the rather hazy requirement of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools.

“Free” is an interesting word here, all by itself, since the decision is mainly about providing money. But we can make the obvious assumption that it means free to attend, which doesn’t seem really true unless a child’s parents or guardians don’t pay any taxes.

It’s not that the decision doesn’t have a lot of interesting things in it, but more that the decision moves into the dicey territory of at what, if any, level courts can decide the adequacy of funding for state programs without assuming legislative power. There’s also a question of whether the court’s assumption that more money is directly related to better education results is even correct.

The conclusion of the opinion would really not come as much of a surprise to anyone who read some of the witnesses testimony adopted under the court’s findings. For instance there is this: “In fact, the response by the State to the new reforms and higher standards in universal proficiency has been declining resources. Trial Testimony of Senator Stratton Rollins Heath.” You may recall the recent nearly 2-to-1 defeat of Sen. Heath’s $3 billion tax increase proposal for public education.

You also know things are not going to go well when the court decides to label an entire section “The Public Education System Is Significantly Underfunded.”

An informed reader might suppose that if this were the case, the Constitution provides for citizens, at the local level, as mandated by the Constitution, to pass a mill levy override to fund their schools at a higher level.

This court does not seem to see that as a particularly workable idea. “Defendants have argued that school districts could increase their funding by use of the override mechanism. This proposal contradicts the purpose of the override funding provisions and is inherently inequitable and irrational,” the decision said. “Many school districts, including Plaintiff School Districts and districts where the Individual Plaintiffs reside, are unable to raise money through mill levy override elections because of the socio-economic status of their communities.”

The court also argued that, “It is challenging, burdensome, and time-consuming to go to the electorate every few years to ask for a tax increase.”

The decision also talks about some of the programs that apparently will remedy problems in educational achievement, “The Court finds that all School Districts are unable to provide the early childhood and kindergarten programs that are critical to student achievement.” This is an issue on which I think there’s probably some debate — that is, if the absence of these programs significantly hampers a student from meeting state and federal educational standards.

Here the issue seems settled and, in finding that the solution to student performance is mainly attributable to funding rather than technique or culture, the court comes to the now obvious conclusion: “It is also apparent that increased funding will be required.”

The decision now will go to the state Supreme Court on appeal.

However, if creating a uniform funding mechanism for public schools is the problem I have a simpler solution.

Give each student a voucher for a set amount of money and let them go wherever they want.

Rick Wagner offers more thoughts on politics at his blog, The War on Wrong.


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