Education on Trial

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Are Colorado’s kids getting the kind of education required by the state constitution? A Denver district judge will consider that question starting today and her decision could have a huge impact on how the state funds schools -- and how much it spends. We'll interview the family that helped spark the lawsuit. First, though, CPR's education reporter Jenny Brundin brings us a preview of the case, Lobato versus the state of Colorado. Here’s a transcript of Brundin’s report:

Reporter Jenny Brundin: Colorado Attorney General John Suthers met with reporters recently to explain why he thinks the state is doing its job when it comes to education. He leans forward to read from a thick open book – his copy of Colorado's 1876 constitution.

Attorney General John Suthers: The general assembly shall as soon as practicable provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.

Reporter: “Thorough and uniform” he tells a group of reporters, means simply that the new state would set up free schools open to everyone.

Suthers: There's no mention of funding and unlike other state constitutions there was no direction as to how schools would be funded.

Reporter: Especially no direction that would take into account the complex system we have now. Hundreds of regulations, a diverse population, kids who don't speak English, special needs kids and a slew of required programs from sex education to driver’s ed classes. Governor John Hickenlooper believes the framers of the constitution didn’t contemplate funding levels.

Governor John Hickenlooper: My sincere belief is that the framers of our state constitution believed that it should be the legislature and the people’s vote that should decide what is an appropriate level.

Reporter: Others believe the constitution requires more than they are getting in some districts. Center School District Superintendent George Welsh says lawmakers aren’t doing their jobs, and schools are suffering. He says kids in his district, 91 percent of whom live in poverty, don’t get the same advantages as other kids because rural districts can’t afford them.

George Welsh: You might not have a high school tennis or swim team but if you have a kid capable of taking calculus or physics or an AP English or AP science class, you ought to be able to provide that.

Reporter: Welsh’s district is a plaintiff in the lawsuit that goes back to 2005. That's when a group of parents from all over– many in rural San Luis Valley - sued the state over disparities they see in the system. Kathy Gebhardt is a lead attorney with Children's Voices, a public interest law firm based in Boulder.

Kathy Gebhardt: There are school districts in Colorado where children are educated in closets. Our highest needs children are educated in closets. There are school districts that are unable to offer the kind of curriculum that would allow their students to get into institutions for higher education. There are falling down facilities.

Reporter: So, after six years of back-and-forth court briefings and a trip to the state Supreme Court, Lobato versus the State of Colorado has finally landed in a Denver trial court. It will answer this basic question:

Bruce Caughey: Are we funding our schools properly?

That's Bruce Caughey, executive director of CASE – the Colorado Association of School Executives. His answer? No.

Caughey: We are underfunding our public education system in Colorado to the tune of billions of dollars.

Reporter: Caughey says just to get to the national average - the state needs to spend $1.5 billion more than it currently does. Instead he says, lawmakers are cutting school budgets - more than half a billion over the past two years. He says that's resulted in a “dismal” education for some. Attorney General John Suthers won't go that far, but says:

Suthers: There's no question, a lot of kids are coming to school unprepared.

Reporter: But he's adamant on this point.

Suthers: Once they get to school, throwing money at it doesn't solve the problem.. Education is a lot more complex than just having the best school building and the best audio-video facilities and things like that. What ultimately you need is kids well-prepared to come to school. You need involved parents and good teachers and all that sort of thing and that doesn't just come from money.

Reporter: Suthers says the state will show that there isn't a clear correlation between money spent and student outcomes. Moreover, he says the plaintiffs desire for another $3 to 4 billion for public schools is unworkable, unless the state raised taxes dramatically.

Suthers: If our budget remained the same, and keep in mind we have constitutional restraints on increasing the budget. They would take up virtually the entire general fund budget. No higher ed. No prisons. No social services. Nothing, but K-12 education.

Reporter: Bruce Caughey of CASE, the organization for school executives, acknowledges those constraints.

Caughey: Unfortunately our tax structure in Colorado is so constrained by constitutional amendments and what's been happening with the interaction of TABOR and Gallagher over the years.

Reporter: Just a review TABOR requires any tax increase to go before voters. The Gallagher Amendment had the effect of reducing property tax revenues for schools. So back to Bruce Caughey's point:

Caughey: And by what's been happening with the interaction of TABOR and Gallagher over the years, that now we don't have the resources coming from local level from cities and counties to support our schools and the burden has shifted to the state.

Reporter: While the state says those constraints are a key factor, the judge says that the state can’t even bring up TABOR or Gallagher as part of the trial. In other words, the fiscal constraints can't be an excuse for not following the constitution.

Welner: So the court is basically saying, yes, it might be an inconvenience for you.

Reporter: Kevin Welner is an education professor at CU Boulder.

Reporter: Yes it might be really difficult, but my job is to determine whether or not the education clause is being complied with.

Reporter: Welner says much of the case will be researchers duking it out over whether more money results in better school outcomes. But the arguments with the most sway, he says, will be those that relate directly to Colorado.

Welner: If the plaintiffs are able to go into court and say, this system in Colorado shocks our conscience. This system in Colorado is so irrational that you can't look at it and not be outraged, then I think they win. If they go in and say we prefer a better system than the one you have and we can show that our ideas are better than yours – that's not going to win it.

Reporter: The trial-- Lobato versus the state of Colorado-- is expected to last five weeks. Jenny Brundin, Colorado Public Radio News.

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