Why is the State of Colorado being sued for not funding our schools “adequately”?
In 2006, the public interest law firm “Children’s Voices” filed the Lobato vs. Colorado lawsuit, which asserts that the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and uniform” system of free public schools in Colorado. The first stage of the Lobato case was argued to the Supreme Court on June 9, 2009. You can listen to the arguments here. The suit is based on the theory that Colorado’s educational content standards (such as those tested by the CSAPs) now define what “thorough and uniform” means. Colorado’s current school finance scheme simply doesn’t meet that standard. Suits similar to the Lobato suit have been filed in 26 states around the country. So far, courts have ruled in favor of the children and school districts in more than 20 of those cases. These cases are often referred to as “adequacy lawsuits.” You can view the complaint and learn more about Children’s Voices here.
Where does the Lobato suit stand now?
On October 19, 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the Lobato suit can go forward (reversing decisions in lower courts that case should be dismissed) and that the judiciary is well-equipped to determine whether the current system of school finance is constitutional under the “thorough and uniform” standard. Read the Colorado Supreme Court’s Decision here. The Supreme Court sent the case back to the District Court for a trial regarding whether the state’s funding system is rationally related to the standards the state has set for schools, districts, and children. That trial is not expected to start before the end of 2010.
What does “adequacy” mean in the context of school funding?
Imagine that you have decided to build a new home. You know that you want high-quality workmanship, reliable and safe plumbing and electrical fixtures, a certain number of bedrooms, bathrooms and square feet. Then you tell the contractor you will pay only $50,000 for the construction of the home. That’s how schools are funded in Colorado. We’ve set high standards of achievement for our children and our schools. But the amount we give our districts bears no relation to the actual cost of ensuring that all our children—including those with disabilities, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and those whose first language is not English—meet those standards.
In the real world, it doesn’t work that way. Once you have provided the specifications, a contractor will cost out the materials and labor and provide a bid that approximates the actual cost of building the home. That’s what “adequacy” is all about in school finance. We wouldn’t decide on a price for building a house—or a highway—without “costing out” the job, so why should we do it for educating our children? That’s why Colorado needed an “Adequacy Study.” Link here for more background on adequacy studies.
Has an Adequacy or “costing-out” study been completed in Colorado?
Yes. In 2002, the Colorado School Finance Project began the process of conducting an “adequacy study”—the first “costing-out” study ever done in Colorado. The Study looks at the actual cost of educating children to the level of proficiency in state standards, taking into account the additional costs of meeting the needs of English Language Learners (ELL), Special Education and at-risk kids (those eligible for free and reduced lunch). The Study also takes into account the differing per-student costs faced by school districts of different sizes (i.e., per student costs are higher in small districts, because the overhead of running a district—heating, transportation, custodial services, etc.—is split among a smaller number of students). The Adequacy Study concluded—using conservative assumptions—that for the 2001-2002 school year (the year studied) the state spent between $568 and $841 million less than would have been required for school districts to bring all students up to required standards. The adequacy study was updated in 2006 to reflect increased requirements under No Child Left Behind and increased costs, such as transportation and health care. Taking those factors into account, the 2006 study concluded that current funding is at least $630 million per year below what would be necessary to allow schools to meet current standards. You can view the summary of the Adequacy Study here. The 2006 update to the Colorado Adequacy Study can be viewed here. More information about the Study can be found on the Colorado School Finance Project website: www.cosfp.org/. For further background on the concept of “adequacy” as it is being used in other states, check out the website of one of our counterparts in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Alliance for Excellent Schools: www.excellentschools.org/adequacy.htm.
What’s the theory of the lawsuit?
The basis of the Lobato suit is the “thorough and uniform” Education Clause of the Colorado Constitution, which reads: “The General Assembly shall… provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.” The lawsuit asserts that the General Assembly has given meaning to what “thorough” means, by enacting “standards-based education”—that is an accountability system that establishes what students should master for each year of their schooling; and that the General Assembly is required to fund schools statewide in a way that makes them “uniform” so that rural, urban and suburban districts are equally able to help their students meet those standards. Relying in part on the result of the adequacy study (see above), the lawsuit asks the Court to find that the State of Colorado is violating the Education Clause of the Colorado Constitution because its school finance scheme fails in two ways: (1) it does not provide sufficient funds to provide for a “thorough” education and (2) it does not ensure that funds are distributed in a way that provides for “uniform” (i.e., statewide) access to educational opportunities.
Why does Great Education Colorado support this lawsuit?
As public school supporters, we feel strongly that Colorado doesn’t invest enough in our schools. Our state’s lack of investment in education has been building for more than twenty years and solving it is no small task. We’ve got to use every tool available. While Great Education Colorado is fighting for improved Pre-K-12 funding with political and legislative tactics, Children’s Voices is adding a critical new tool to the battle: the legal system. Why is that good news? The legal process provides a formal, public forum to tell the story of schools and students struggling to meet standards without the essential resources they need, like appropriate individual attention, textbooks, course curriculum, equipment—or even a safe place to attend school. The suit establishes that providing essential resources for our schools isn’t just a moral duty—it’s a legal requirement. The threat of a successful lawsuit will give public school supporters (including like-minded legislators) a stronger hand in fighting for adequate Pre-K-12 funding. As noted above, lawsuits similar to this one have been filed throughout the nation and courts have ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in the vast majority of the cases. In fact, in Kansas—where the issue was resolved by courts in 2006—the State Legislature convened in special session to comply with the Supreme Court’s decision by adding $148 million for Pre-K-12 funding and a total of $755.6 million from 2004-05 to 2008-09 (26% increase from the 2004-05 state funding level).