A Denver judge ruled last Friday that Colorados public education system is seriously underfunded.
In Lobato vs. State of Colorado, District Judge Sheila Rappaport did not go so far as to endorse the plaintiffs figure of $4 billion, but she did write, It is apparent that increased funding will be required to bring the state into compliance with its constitution.
There is not enough money in the system to permit school districts across the state to properly implement standards-based education and to meet the requirements of state law and regulation.
The state attorney generals staff had argued that the General Assembly and Colorado voters have authority to determine how much should be spent on education.
The Colorado constitution requires a thorough and uniform system of free public schools, and logically, voters and the legislature have considerable latitude in deciding how to accomplish that. According to Rappaports ruling, they have not, and fixing that problem will be complicated, contentious and extremely expensive, including not only more money for education but more for lawyers.
Rappaport wrote, logically, that statewide educational standards have created increased costs for districts, and that state funding has not kept pace with those costs. As a result, poorer districts cannot serve their students as well as those with deeper pockets.
The issue really has two parts an ideal and a reality. Schools should be funded fairly; doing so will cost the state and its taxpayers a lot of money that Colorado does not have. Neither point negates the other.
No one can argue credibly that all school districts have the same amount of resources; that is clearly not the case. The states claim that more money is not the sole solution to better schools is also inarguable but somewhat beside the point, which is that students in some schools have far fewer government-funded educational opportunities than students in others, and those differences matter.
If the ruling stands after all challenges have been exhausted, legislators will have to devise a finance system that funds all legislative mandates. Ironically, Rappaports ruling amounts to a gigantic unfunded mandate for the state of Colorado. The state already spends $3.2 billion of its $7 billion general fund on K-12 education, and Colorado does have other obligations, expensive ones.
Right now reactions are divided down party lines, and thats too bad. Only if the best minds in the state work together can the legislature devise an affordable plan to provide high-quality education for all students. Working toward either end of the spectrum is a waste of time. The chances of a constitutional amendment to overturn the thorough and uniform system requirement are almost nil, and last month voters mixed a $3 billion tax increase for education by a 2-1 margin.
Reducing the number of mandates is an idea worth considering, but not at the price of reducing educational quality. Standards are not inherently bad. Cheaper, lower-quality education is not a solution. What Colorado needs is a fairer plan for funding and delivering the education students need.