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Opinion: Why I voted no on Lobato appeal

Elaine Gantz Berman, a Democrat, represents the 1st Congressional District on the State Board of Education and is a former member of the Denver school board. She submitted this commentary after the SBE voted 4-3 on Dec. 27 to appeal the Lobato ruling.

I voted against appealing the Denver District Court’s Lobato decision. I cannot come up with any reasonable rationale to defend the status quo of how we fund schools, and I believe the students of Colorado deserve a first class education system. Today, we do not have a first class education system in our state.

It’s my hope that this ruling will force the legislature and the governor to come up with a solution now – and not delay the important discussion. Since the solution must not harm other important existing programs – such as Medicaid, higher education, prisons and transportation – I can see no way around the fact that we need additional revenue to address our antiquated school funding model.

Today’s public school results are not a source of pride. Colorado’s achievement gap is one of the worst in the country. Our college remediation rate is high and graduation rates are poor. Colorado is ranked at the bottom of almost every list that ranks school funding.

Property taxes generate more resources for the school district in Steamboat Springs, for instance, than in nearby Craig. Despite the state’s attempt to provide an equalizing formula, the available resources are not the same. Similar disparities exist across the state.

On a broader scale, our teachers’ starting salaries are not competitive with other professional salaries, and yet all would agree that well trained, quality teachers in every classroom is THE most important factor in a successful educational system.

The central claim of the Lobato lawsuit is that there is no rational relationship between how we fund schools and what we expect from our education system. The Denver judge agreed with this claim, and I also think it would be very difficult to argue there is in fact a rational relationship.

Currently, the state starts with an arbitrary amount of funding and distributes it according to a school finance formula that is nearly two decades old. The formula predates the state’s requirement for statewide standards, assessments, accountability systems and, more recently, educator evaluation, all of which I firmly believe were excellent pieces of legislation and should be fully implemented even if budgets are tight.

Rather, we should address the bigger issue now.

For Colorado to have a good chance of offering our children a first class education in this century, we need:

First, agreement that our schools need more funding to adequately pay teachers according to the new evaluation systems (required by Senate Bill 10-191), to provide music, art, band, PE, theater and other courses that provide a well-rounded education and to heat our schools and transport students in rural Colorado.

Second, bipartisan and bold leadership from legislators and the governor to tackle this issue head on, now, no excuses.

Third, we must address tax revenue that has been lost to the state. We must either fix TABOR, Gallagher or revise our tax structure in another way. The voters may be reluctant to increase taxes, but the ruling provides an opportunity to put everything on the table and bring back rationality to funding our schools. If the state funding system makes more sense, it’s possible that overall public support for schools may increase as the financial playing field levels and as clarity is restored to how dollars reach schools.

It is time we work on these issues and develop an equitable funding system for Colorado’s public schools. The appeal only means an unnecessary delay in this important conversation. Even if the state were to prevail at the Colorado Supreme Court level, the current funding system isn’t getting the job done. The facts speak for themselves.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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