A stunning victory for Colorado plaintiffs in a school finance lawsuit not all that different from the CCJEF v. Rell case surely ought to result in heightened legal angst here in Connecticut, just as it should further raise the hopes of public schools, parents, and schoolchildren across the Nutmeg State. The decision, in which Colorado’s school finance system was found to be unconstitutional, was handed down by the Denver District Court on Friday, Dec. 9. 

The Lobato v. Colorado lawsuit   was brought in 2005 by Children’s Voices, a nonprofit public interest law firm, against the State of Colorado, its State Board of Education, and   Governor on behalf of 22 parents/guardians of more than three dozen schoolchildren and 21 school districts, plus another 8 parents and their ELL schoolchildren appearing as intervenors in further support of plaintiffs and represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund. 

The Court found that Colorado’s public schools are so underfunded that children throughout the state are being denied an adequate education in violation of the state’s constitutional mandate of a “thorough and uniform” system of public education, and that the Colorado public school finance system “fails to provide the financial resources necessary for local boards of education to exercise control of instruction in their schools.” (p. 1)

Here are a few special gems contained in the Court’s 183-page decision, which is sending shockwaves across Colorado: 

• “Many witnesses, for both Plaintiffs and Defendants testified that more money makes a difference in public education.  Even Defendants’ lead expert witness, Dr. Eric Hanushek, acknowledges that, ‘money certainly matters’; he testified that if a school district in Colorado efficiently spends its money, additional funds for education could lead to higher student achievement.”  (p.49)

• Citing earlier Court decisions, “Colorado has one of the widest achievement gaps in the United States…. There is roughly a thirty percent gap in Colorado between white and minority students and high-income and low-income students with respect to achievement on [the state’s] standardized tests…. Colorado has among the largest achievement gaps on NAEP across all the states….”  (p.56)

• • Citing testimony by Dr. Steven Barnett (an internationally prominent expert in early childhood education and Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research), “The roots of disparities in achievement and graduation are to a considerable extent evident when children enter kindergarten.”  (p.57)  And here’s another quote from Barnett testimony recounted in the decision that is particularly salient for Connecticut in light of the Attorney General’s recent motion to exclude preschool and early childhood education from the CCJEF lawsuit CCJEF lawsuit:  “High quality preschool programs have been found to close as much as seventy percent of the achievement gaps between higher- and lower-income students and between majority and minority students at kindergarten entry and one quarter to one third of the gaps in the long term.”  (p.67)

• “The APA Report [the adequacy cost study conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, the same Denver consulting firm that conducted the 2005 Connecticut adequacy cost study establishes both that (1) school funding can be analyzed and quantified by rational methods and that (2) the existing finance system is so profoundly underfunded that it cannot be considered rational or adequate.”  (p.177)  The Court goes on to cite APA’s research finding of underfunding in the amount of $1.35 billion to $1.94 billion per year using its successful schools model, and $3.58 billion to $4.15 billion per year using the professional judgment model, which the Court viewed as a more accurate method of estimating costs.  While noting that it is “not this Court’s function to determine at this time the amount necessary to provide adequate funding for public education,” the decision goes on to say “However, the Court does find that public education is very significantly underfunded and that any legislative response of necessity must address the level of funding necessary to meet the Education Clause and the standards-based system and should provide funding consistent with that standard.”  (p.177)

“All of the evidence demonstrates a systemic failure to provide all students with the knowledge and skills mandated by the Education Clause and standards-based education.  This failure is directly correlated to inadequate and irrational funding.”  (p.179)

• “Insufficient funding prevents the School Districts from accomplishing the ambitious goals of educational accountability.  Present school district funding levels bear no intentional relationship to the costs of meeting state imposed performance goals.  Failure to accomplish these goals leads to regulatory consequences of the most profound concern to local boards of education, including state administered ‘major restructuring’ impacting at least local curriculum, school staffing, school schedules, and student assessment and training, but also school closure, privatization, or conversion to charter status.”  (p.180) 

• “Current economic conditions, however, are not the source of the school finance crisis.  They have made an unworkable situation unconscionable.  But Colorado’s history of irrational and inadequate school funding goes back for over two decades.”  (p.182)

Sound familiar?  All these describe many of the CCJEF v. Rell school finance claims!  In my view, having known the lead Colorado plaintiff attorney, Kathleen Gebhardt, for many years and through her kept rather closely abreast of that case’s twist and turns and the related predecessor legal actions, the Connecticut evidence is no less shocking than what was presented at the Lobato trial.  Many of the same nationally prominent experts will be appearing on behalf of plaintiffs here.

Indeed, the Denver Court’s decision covers the gamut of any comprehensive education adequacy and equity lawsuit, addressing standards-based education and statewide reform measures, high content and performance expectations and accountability standards set by the State Board of Education and General Assembly, school report cards, NCLB and “adequate yearly progress,” high school graduation rates, post-secondary and college readiness, special education, English language learners, gifted and talented education, the education of low-income students, school facilities, technology, teacher quality and professional development, class sizes, local control of instruction, unfunded state mandates, and persistent achievement gaps based on race, language, and disability. 

One difference between the Colorado case and the current Connecticut litigation is the length of time for justice to be delivered to schoolchildren.  The Colorado case was filed in June 2005; successfully withstood a motion by the state to dismiss the case, requiring a pre-trial trip to that state’s Supreme Court in 2009; and upon remand to the trial court, the decision has now been handed down, just a few days shy of four months since the trial began.  (Of course the state is already threatening to appeal the lower court’s decision.) 

By comparison, the CCJEF case was filed in November 2005; upon losing a pre-trial motion that gutted the case of all education adequacy claims (but not the equity one), plaintiffs’ side trip to the state Supreme Court cost 23 months — though the detour was certainly well worth the wait, with the Supreme Court ruling that the education clause of the state constitution does indeed imply a qualitative (adequacy) standard, one that is commensurate with the evolving needs of society and educational best practices.  However, the detour triggered a resetting of the trial court “clock” back to zero-hour, so that at the earliest, the case now isn’t scheduled for trial until January 2014 at the earliest. 

Clearly justice in Colorado is swifter than here.  Given that we have but one fleeting opportunity for educating our schoolchildren well, one can only wish that the state of Connecticut would seek a swift resolution for a case that in no small part may either bolster or deny bright futures for Connecticut schoolchildren when the case finally wends its way to trial.

The Colorado remedy?  Injunctive relief ordered by the Court included enjoining defendants “from adopting, implementing, administering, or enforcing any and all law and regulations that fail to establish, maintain, and fund a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state that fulfills the qualitative mandate of the Education Clause and the rights guaranteed to the Plaintiffs thereunder.”  The Court further ordered defendants “to design, enact, fund, and implement a system of public school finance that provides and assures that adequate, necessary, and sufficient funds are available in a manner rationally related to accomplish the purposes of the Education Clause….”  However, the Court stayed enforcement of the injunctive relief to provide the state a reasonable amount of time to comply and/or until final action by the Colorado Supreme Court upon appeal of the Court’ decision by the state.

Attorney Gebhardt’s small education advocacy law firm had the help of eight legal firms and over 20 attorneys who filed thousands of hours in pro-bono work made possible by the Colorado Lawyers Committee.  She is rightly “thrilled that the constitutional rights of Colorado’s more than 800,000 students have been vindicated so that they can finally receive the education they need and deserve to be prepared for college, citizenship, and a 21st century workforce.”  She calls upon the Colorado legislature to act immediately to design a school finance system that provides all students with the educational opportunities and resources needed to meet state standards. 

Amen, here in Connecticut!  And congratulations to our friends and schoolchildren in Colorado.

Dianne Kaplan deVries is an education consultant who also serves as Project Director for the Connecticut Coalition for Justice in Education Funding, plaintiffs in the CCJEF v. Rell education adequacy and equity lawsuit. Opinions expressed here, however, are solely hers and not necessarily those of CCJEF.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.