From the Statehouse

Lawsuit: Education clause trumps TABOR

The revised school-funding lawsuit filed Monday argues that the state constitutional requirement for “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” creates a “substantive” right to which “procedural amendments” such as TABOR “must yield.”

The new complaint in Lobato v. State, made possible by an October 2009 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that revived the original 2005 case, raises the issue of whether Colorado spends enough on its schools at a time when the legislature is considering historic cuts in K-12 spending.

The case also is expected to set into motion years of judicial and perhaps legislative debate on some big constitutional and policy questions:

  • What educational rights does the state constitution confer?
  • What is “adequate” funding of the schools?
  • Is it up to the courts or legislature to determine that?
  • Does the state constitution’s original language about a “thorough and uniform” system of schools – and any rights that language confers on citizens – override such later amendments as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, which regulates property taxes?

The plaintiffs’ claim about TABOR, deep in the 38-page complaint, reads: “The ability of the state and school districts to provide and maintain sufficient funding and other resources and to implement a system of public school finance that meets the substantive right to a quality public education established by the Education Clause is fundamentally impaired by the taxing and spending conditions imposed by TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment. These procedural amendments to the constitution must yield to the substantive rights guaranteed by the Education Clause.”

The Lobato case started in 2005 when a group of parents from eight school districts across the state and 14 school districts in the San Luis Valley sued the state, claiming that Colorado’s school finance system violates the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” public education system.

In March 2006 Denver District Judge Michael Martinez ruled against the plaintiffs, concluding the current system meets the requirements of Amendment 23, isn’t subject to court review and that the school districts didn’t have standing to sue.

A Colorado Court of Appeals panel upheld the district court decision in January 2008.

On Oct. 19, 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to revive the lawsuit, sending it back to the trial court.

The updated suit adds new plaintiffs – the Jefferson County and Colorado Springs 11 districts plus a group of metro-area parents. The parents and their children include residents of the Adams 14, Boulder Valley, Denver, Pueblo County and Woodlin schools districts, plus the San Luis Valley districts.

There now are more than 30 individuals and 17 school districts on the suit.

The suit also cites more recent facts about the condition of school funding in Colorado.

As was the case when the lawsuit originally was filed, the core of the plaintiffs’ argument is that Colorado public schools are so under-funded that students are denied an adequate education, in violation of that state constitutional mandate of a “thorough and uniform” system. The suit also claims the current system violates the constitutional local control rights of schools boards.

“The state has persistently failed to fund public education in a rational and sufficient manner and at the levels required to meet constitutional and statutory standards of quality,” the complaint reads.

“The Colorado public school finance system particularly fails to provide sufficient funding to provide a constitutionally adequate, quality education for the under-served student populations in the state.”

The suit repeated uses the words “irrational and inadequate” and also has some critical things to say about state education reform efforts in recent years.

“Education reform legislation has established instructional and other substantive goals and mandates without analyzing the cost to attain those goals or providing the means to fund the accomplishment of those mandates. The General Assembly has enacted education reform legislation without corresponding reform to the system of school finance.”

The suit seeks a court declaration that the current system isn’t rationally related to the constitutional education mandate, doesn’t provide enough funding to fulfill that mandate and violates the constitutional rights of school districts. It asks injunctions directing the state to fix the system and establishing continuing court monitoring of any such efforts.

At the time of the high court’s ruling last autumn, two of the lawyers involved in the case, Alexander Halpern and Kathleen Gebhardt, called on “the legislature to act immediately to remedy the problem, thereby avoiding a costly and lengthy trial.”

The legislature, faced with a continued decline in state revenues, already has cut just over 2 percent from 2009-10 state school support and is expected to reduce state aid by 6 percent or more in 2010-11.

Lawmakers and the Ritter administration are taking a narrow view of Amendment 23, arguing that its provision only apply to base school funding, which is about 75 percent of total state aid.

School districts were prepared for the 2009-10 cuts, given that they had to hold a total of $110 million in reserve until the legislature decided whether or not to release it.

Administrations and school boards around the state now are working in earnest to cut their 2010-11 budgets, and some boards already have taken the legal steps necessary to lay off teachers before the new budget year starts on July 1.

Several education and other advocacy groups were part of the original case as “friends of the court,” including the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado League of Charter Schools, the Colorado Lawyers Committee, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, Great Education Colorado and Padres Unidos. They joined the case in support of the plaintiffs.

The school boards group, CASB, has been particularly active on the issue, including helping raise money to pay legal bills.

While “adequacy” might seem to be a concept whose definition is in the mind of the beholder, some people have taken a stab at estimating its cost. According to an estimate the Department of Education gave to a legislative study panel last summer, funding an “ideal” K-12 education system could cost nearly $9 billion a year, compared to the $6.1 billion currently spent.

The lawsuit also cited a 2008 Colorado School Finance Project study that estimated a similar, $2.9 billion-a-year gap in adequate state funding.

The next step in the process will be filing of an answer by lawyers representing the state.

Adequacy has been a focus of activity and court review in several other states in recent years. Here’s information on recent court action around the country, as reported by the National Access Network, a project of Teachers College at Columbia University.

Do your homework

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.