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Lobato case dominates discussion

A judge’s recent decision in the Lobato lawsuit dominated discussion Tuesday at the last meeting of a group that’s been considering new school finance systems.

The Colorado School Finance Partnership, which been working for a year on funding issues, heard lengthy presentations on the decision from Kathleen Gebhardt, lead attorney for the successful plaintiffs, and others on about the potential impacts of the ruling on future funding of public education.

“Our school funding system is broken, and we have a great deal of work ahead of us to fix it,” said Chris Watney, president of the Colorado Children’s Campaign at the beginning of the meeting at the University of Colorado Denver. Watney is one of three co-chairs of the partnership, which the Children’s Campaign helped launch.

Gebhardt gave a detailed rundown on the Lobato case and Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport’s strong ruling in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge found the state’s school finance system violates the state constitutional guarantees of a “thorough and uniform” education system. (See Education News Colorado’s Lobato archive for full background.)

“It is not a matter of rearranging the resources we already have. … We need additional resources going forward” for schools, Gebhardt said.

Tracie Rainey and Justin Silverstein, who helped conduct an education cost study that was a key part of the plaintiffs’ case during the Lobato trial, also briefed the group about their findings.

That study concluded full funding of K-12 schools could cost between $2 and $4 billion a year on top of the $5.2 billion currently spent.

Looking to the future

While the state is expected to appeal the Lobato decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, Gebhardt said she hopes the 2012 legislature will take up the judge’s order to create a new school finance system. “We think this is the right session to do it.”

Frank Waterous, lobbyist and a policy analyst for the Bell Policy Center, asked Gebhardt the big-picture question about how the legislature can increase school funding without asking voters for a tax increase.

“The legislature will have to find a way to comply with the constitution even if a ballot measure fails,” Gebhardt said. She added that the plaintiffs don’t intend to gut other state programs to fund schools, a scenario that Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General John Suthers have raised.

Gebhardt also hinted at a possible constitutional endgame, noting a Nevada court ruling that she said found that state’s constitutional education clause trumped a “procedural” requirement from a legislative super-majority.

“Our Supreme Court has been adamant is saying TABOR is only procedural.” The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights amendment to the Colorado Constitution requires voter approval of tax increases.

“I don’t want to assume bad faith on the part of the legislature. … I’m going to assume the legislature is going to act responsibly,” Gebhardt said.

Is more money the answer?

Participants in Tuesday’s session answered a series of questions about government funding using an instant-response system.

While there was general agreement on questions asking if schools need more money, there was a little friendly back and forth about school funding.

Kelly Brough, CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, noted that Colorado students score better on national tests than do students in five of the top 10 highest-spending states.

Brough also said, “We don’t have any ties between outcomes and how we fund schools.” One of the issues the partnership is examining is including student outcomes as a factor in a new finance system.

Tony Salazar, executive director of the Colorado Education Association, said, “We’re making the business-education comparison again, and it never works” because public schools are required to serve all children, regardless of their needs or what it costs to serve them.

Making the case to voters

The discussion turned several times to the issue of how to persuade citizens to understand the need for more school funding.

“We’re a pretty esoteric group,” said John Giardino, an education lobbyist and the lead plaintiff in an earlier lawsuit over state funding of school facilities. “I don’t know if Coloradans really understand” the costs and value of quality education.

Gail Klapper, director of Colorado Forum, talked about the difficulty of crafting a reform proposal acceptable to voters. “The hard part is knowing what to get on with that will be successful, because none of us wants to fail,” she said. Colorado Forum is a business group that has been studying Colorado’s fiscal challenges.

“We haven’t done what we need to do before going to the voters,” said Democratic former state Sen. Sue Windels, now an aide to U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-2nd District.

“It seems to me we should at this point be putting together a public education campaign where you don’t go out and advocate for anything” but just try to inform voters about funding challenges, Windels said.

Brough noted that Hickenlooper is working on such a campaign, known as TBD Colorado – TBD stands for To Be Decided. “The idea is to engage people in a conversation … and create a vision for the future” of the state.

What’s next for the partnership

Tuesday’s meeting was the last session for a broad advisory group that has been meeting monthly. A smaller steering committee will meet for two days in early January to come up with a set of recommendations.

Former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, another co-chair of the partnership, told the group the “word takes on a new level of importance because of the Lobato ruling.”

Watney told EdNews “We do believe our recommendations will be of value to the 2012 legislative session” and noted that two key legislative education leaders, Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston of Denver and Republican Rep. Tom Massey of Poncha Springs, are on the steering committee.

The partnership includes a wide range of education interest groups, from CEA to the reform-oriented business group Colorado Succeeds. But the steering committee doesn’t include any hard-right or libertarian-oriented groups such as the Independence Institute.

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