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Success of Colorado suit over education funding has implications for Minnesota

The Colorado Legislature's funding for education is "irrational and inadequate," a Denver judge has ruled.
Creative Commons photo by Flickr user ilovemypit
The Colorado Legislature’s funding of education is “irrational and inadequate,” a Denver judge has ruled.

On Friday, a Denver District Court judge ruled that the Colorado Legislature’s “irrational and inadequate” funding system violates that state’s constitution, which promises a “thorough and uniform” education system.

“There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded,” Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in Lobato v. State, according to an Associated Press story, here via Education Week. “This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system.”

Why should you, Dear Minnesota Reader, take note? Because our state constitution has a nearly identical provision and because lawsuits filed by parents, districts and education advocates against states are becoming increasingly common around the country.

Yesterday, for example, Los Angeles Unified was expected to file suit on behalf of 38,000 magnet and special-education students whose $38 million busing program would be wiped out for the rest of the year by funding cuts triggered by California’s shortfall in new revenue. On top of the busing money, the district expects an $8 million shortfall.

Funding-adequacy suits have hit dockets recently in New Jersey, Texas, Alaska and Montana, among other places.

Education-policy notables testified
The Colorado case, which was tried over five weeks last summer, was particularly noteworthy because a Who’s Who of education policy notables took the stand to talk about the relationship between adequate funding and the closing of the achievement gap.

The state could not both set more rigorous education standards and fail to come up with the money schools need to satisfy them, plaintiffs argued in a case that could be made in most states.

Rappaport’s 189-page ruling [PDF] has been described as a “clean sweep” for plaintiffs, who charge that state funding falls up to $4 billion short of the amount that would allow schools to meet increasingly specific, stringent standards for student performance. The standards, of course, are designed to close the achievement gap, which the plaintiffs assert they will not be able to do without adequate funding.

Colorado law requires voters to approve all tax increases. Which means that in order to give schools “full funding,” lawmakers must either go to the citizenry or shift money from other parts of the budget.

Politics notwithstanding, the judge ruled, the Legislature needs to fund the education reforms it enacts. “Some of the State’s witnesses hold extreme views on education and school funding that are inconsistent with the Colorado Constitution and/or state reform legislation,” she wrote.

So far, plaintiffs have won two-thirds of cases
Since 1970, 45 school-funding suits have gone forward around the country. Plaintiffs have won two-thirds of the 33 cases resolved to date.

A first generation concentrated on equity, and typically involved complaints of inequalities created by disparate funding from one district to another. The most recent suits focus on adequacy per se, with schools arguing, in essence, that new standards are a kind of unfunded mandate.

A longer story on the local history of such suits appeared in this space in August, but the gist is this: Minnesota has had three adequacy suits, filed in 1971, 1988 and 1995, the most famous being the first, in which former federal Judge Miles Lord issued the order that sparked the funding equalization policy known as the Minnesota Miracle.

No recent lawsuit here
No one has filed suit here since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty formally undid that miracle in 2003, but there’s been chatter — particularly in the wake of this year’s legislative session, in which lawmakers balanced the budget by withholding 40 percent of school funding.

Even if such a suit were pursued successfully here — (confidential to Mike Ciresi: Know anyone who understands this issue intimately, is a gifted trial attorney and has a foundation dedicated to the welfare of children? Just askin’.) — it wouldn’t do much for pupils crammed like so many needy sardines into Minnesota classrooms today.

The Colorado suit spent six years wending its way to trial, and the state will most likely appeal Rappoport’s ruling to its supreme court.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Jim Bartholomew on 12/15/2011 - 12:39 pm.

    “No one has filed suit here since former Gov. Tim Pawlenty formally undid that miracle in 2003….”

    Are you referring to a proposal that was passed by the legislature?

    MN is one of the best states for providing state aid vs. property taxes for K-12.

  2. Submitted by Richard O'Neil on 12/15/2011 - 12:52 pm.

    You beg the question, sir. The question is whether the funding is adequate.

  3. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 12/15/2011 - 02:07 pm.

    “The question is whether the funding is adequate.”

    Good luck with that one. I’ve been asking defenders of the status quo “how much is enough” for 10 years. As near as I can tell the answer is “more”.

    And, as the link below explains, even a bottomless bag of “more” wont ensure the government schools will be any better than they are with less.


    Of course it goes without saying that where government schools are concerned, quality education is always secondary to quality salaries and benefits for the dependent union members. In that, “more” is always better.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 12/15/2011 - 05:51 pm.

    It goes without saying because it’s rarely the case. But, since you so happily brought it up, feel free to prove it. I don’t think your single example that is 15 years old from a single (biased) source where over half of the “references” are the authors *opinion* makes anything universally true.

  5. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 12/15/2011 - 09:56 pm.

    Mr. Swift has already demonstrated that his knowledge of educational practice is more or less nonexistent.

    I’ll just say a bit about labels. They’re not “government” schools. They’re *public* schools. Not nearly good enough for the exceptional children in the Swift household, to be sure, but established by constitutional provision in every state of which I’m aware, and good enough for the Rhodes Scholars that I taught, not to mention the vast majority of accomplished Americans, who acquired their K-12 educations in them. Calling them “government” schools is standard right-wing propaganda – labeling something disliked with a name that smacks vaguely of the undesirable. No public entity in the country has more citizen input and oversight than the public schools.

    I knew of the Lobato case, but wasn’t aware that it represented simply the latest in a series of cases. If plaintiffs have won two-thirds of the cases resolved to date, it ought to be a wake-up call – that is, colored lights flashing, sirens wailing, ground moving under the feet – for not only state education officials, but for the legislature and Governor, as well. Given the political snarling and gnashing of teeth the past couple of legislative sessions, combined with the “shifting” of many millions of state education-aid dollars to meet an ongoing deficit problem, I can’t imagine that adding, say, $4 Billion to that deficit, and making it an ongoing, permanent commitment of that kind of money, is something that would go down smoothly in St. Paul, or perhaps anywhere in the state.

    Frankly, I’d support both “generations” of suits. If the legislature, through fund-shifting, forces local districts to fund their operations through local taxes, equity is an immediate and obvious issue – some districts are going to have far larger tax bases than others, and can raise the same amount of money with far less effort and commitment on the part of residents than another district with a smaller tax base with which to work. As for adequacy and the second generation of suits, my experience (in another state) was that imposing new standards didn’t automatically require increased funding in theory, but in practice it came pretty close, since new materials were usually necessary to meet the new standards, even if personnel numbers remained the same.

    The time span involved is indeed formidable. Ms. Lobato was in middle school when the suit was filed on her behalf. She’s now a 20-year-old.

  6. Submitted by Bob Petersen on 12/16/2011 - 09:21 am.

    Of course Ray would discount a dissenting viewpoint and ‘labeling.’ He is a longtime educator. Just because a mjority of cases have been ‘won’ by one side does not mean they are right. What the hay does ‘adequate’ mean anyway? When a majority of funding has been going to accelerating pay and benefits that the average taxpayer does not get, the taxpayers are finally wising up and rightfully asking the questions. Why do the taxpayers have to made out as the evil ones? The only thing we hear from the teachers unions is more funding to improve education. That is their only solution and is usually the only solution Democrats have. If everyone really cared for the students, you would come up with more ideas than just money…and everyone is tired of hearing that. And yes, the public schools ARE government schools. Private schools educate so much better, many times with much smaller cost per student than the public schools.

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