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Governor should lead urgent, post-Lobato talks

Mark Sass, a teacher since 1994, teaches at Legacy High School in the Adams Five Star School District. He is a member of the Denver New Millennium Initiative.

A Denver District Court judge has ruled that the state of Colorado is not fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide for a “thorough and uniform” school system.

Let me rephrase that statement: Our children’s rights are being violated! In any other instance, if the words children, violated, and rights were uttered in the same sentence there would be an outcry and over-the-top coverage by news organizations. What has the response been so far from our elected officials?

The state has said it will surely appeal the decision to the State Supreme Court. Governor Hickenlooper has stated that any changes to the state’s funding should be lead by a grassroots effort. The governor, speaking at the Colorado Association of School Boards last Friday–just hours before the decision was released–was asked how he could use his popularity to change the state constitution. He said: “The only way I know to change something like the state constitution…is to go out to the people and listen as hard as we can…Don’t start with a presupposition that we need to raise taxes or that we need to fund this or that.”

I think his presupposition has been made for him by the courts. And instead of waiting for a grassroots effort to lead the change it should be led by the governor. This is a governor, after all, who has been ranked as the second most popular governor in the country by a recent poll.

What is happening in Colorado is not unique. Other states have been challenged in the courts about a children’s right to an adequate education. New York changed its state formula for education after a court ruled that the state was not providing students with an adequate education. The state was to increase spending by billions of dollars, but due to the recession the state put the new spending on hold.

Michael Rebell, a litigator in the field of educational law, writing in an article in the December/January issue of Educational Leadership, said, “Kids are still entitled to their constitutional rights—constitutional rights don’t get put on hold because there’s a recession.”

The Lobato case was first brought to the courts long before the recent recession–in 2004. According to various research studies comparing states, Colorado’s funding for education has been lacking for years. It is going to take some bold action and leadership on the part of our elected officials to overcome the lack of support for our schools. I believe this leadership starts at the top. In addition to sending out pollsters and listening boards to the various locations in the state, the governor needs to take a stand, even if it means loss of political capital.

The governor needs to seek out best practice and look for evidence of budgetary decisions that support student learning. There will be little support for raising revenues for education if the public does not see educators using these monies efficiently. These are hard conversations that the governor needs to lead. And by “lead”, I mean keeping the discussion focused on ensuring our students’ right to a thorough and uniform education. This should not be an open discussion for citizens to present their various philosophies about the role of government. The court has ruled. The question should be “How do we ensure that our students’ constitutional rights are being met?

Teachers can and should have a seat at this table of discourse. I would ask teachers the same question. And teachers need to be able to answer the question with specificity and not platitudes. This means teachers need to understand how education spending operates, how the current constitutional system limits the ability to raise revenue, and how to move forward with a plan to change the state constitution.

In 1940, Colorado Governor Ralph Carr lost a close race for a second term as governor. Many people attributed his loss to his support of Japanese Americans, whose rights he said, were being violated by Executive Oder 9066, which put first and second generation Japanese Americans into internment camps after the start of WW II. Forty years after their internment the government of the United States apologized for its actions. Ralph Carr did the right thing. He did not wait for the polling numbers to speak out against the violation of someone’s constitutional rights. Governor Hickenlooper has an opportunity to radically change how we fund education and how we use those funds.

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