Colorado Judge Issues Important Adequacy Ruling

in NEWS FROM THE ACCESS NETWORK

Strongly emphasizing the link between standards based reform and the constitutional right to “thorough and uniform” educational opportunities, Colorado District Court Judge Sheila A. Rappaport invalidated the state’s “irrational funding system,” in an exhaustive, 183 page decision issued on December 9, 2011. The judge ordered the state to design, 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, she stayed enforcement of the order pending completion of defendants’ likely appeal to the state supreme court.

In her extensive “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law,” Judge Rappaport described in detail the standards-based reform system that the state had enacted in the 1990s, as well as the recent enhancements to the system based on the state’s adoption of the common core standards, its commitment to college and career ready diploma requirements, and its adoption of new teacher effectiveness standards. She then held that “For purposes of this litigation, the Court accepts this legislation as the minimum standard against which the rationality of the system of public school funding must be measured.” Utilizing that standard, she held that the funding levels in the state’s education finance system “are now and have since inception been completely disconnected from the real, knowable funding needs of a thorough and uniform system of public education.”  Specifically, she found that:

When the [funding system ]was enacted, the General Assembly set the statewide base funding amount by working backwards from the total funding that it intended to appropriate and carrying forward preexisting school district expenditure levels. There was no effort to analyze the relationship to the actual costs to provide an education of any particular quality. The failure to do any cost analysis and to provide for funding based on such an analysis demonstrates the irrationality of the existing school finance system.

The Court further found that as a result of this irrational funding system:

[R]ural and urban poverty School Districts are unable to hire, compensate, and retain effective, highly qualified teachers and administrators; to provide the curriculum, technology, textbooks, and other instructional materials necessary to meet student performance expectations; and to construct, maintain, renovate school buildings and facilities. Many of these School Districts are relegated to obsolete textbooks and materials, lack of necessary computers and internet connectivity, and dilapidated and unsafe classroom and other facilities. These School Districts have been for many years and are today unable to respond effectively to the changing demands of standards-based education.

The impact of irrational and inadequate funding is not, however, limited to rural and urban poverty School Districts. The Court finds that all School Districts are unable to provide the early childhood and kindergarten programs that are critical to student achievement. All School Districts are unable to provide the classroom time, professional training, and instructional interventions that are critical to meet the expectations of [ state standards and accountability requirements]. All School Districts are unable to provide the classroom time, professional training, and interventions critical to the education of under-served student populations, including students at-risk of academic failure, non-English speaking students, students with disabilities, students of minority racial and ethnic heritages, students of low-income families, and gifted and talented students. All School Districts lack the funding necessary to meet the increased expectations of the current revisions to standards-based education….

The Judge further found that the system was so irrational that it prevented school districts from effectively exercising the local control authority that they are specifically granted by the state constitution.  She also held that the legislature’s recent budget cuts, amounting to nearly$1 billion, have aggravated the irrationality of the finance system, although they are not the source of the school finance crisis: “They have made a workable situation unconscionable. But Colorado’s history of irrational and inadequate school funding goes back for over two decades.”

Evidence from cost studies introduced at the trial indicate that Colorado may need to increase its state education budget by $1.35 billion to $4.15 billion per year, but the judge held that although it is clear increased funding will be required,  “[t]hese are appropriately legislative and executive functions in the first instance.”

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