The costs of low educational achievement and the mixed history of legislative school funding efforts were the focus of the Lobato trial Wednesday.
Henry Levin, an education economist from Columbia University, testified all morning about a study he did on the personal and social costs triggered by failing to complete high school, as well as the benefits of higher levels of education to both individuals and the economy.
The tone shifted from the economic to the political later in the day, when two former legislators testified about legislative attitudes on the school finance system and, on cross-examination, state lawyers tried a couple of tricks to trip up the witnesses. (See MANEUVERING item below.)
Levin was the latest in a series of expert witnesses called by the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, which challenges the adequacy of the state’s school funding system.
Other experts have testified about the costs of meeting state academic requirements, providing early childhood education, helping at-risk students and serving disabled students. (See our archive of trial stories.)
With Levin, plaintiffs’ lawyers seemed to be trying to make the case for increased education spending because of its economic benefits – spending that increases the number of high school graduates ultimately reduces governmental and social costs and yields economic benefits for individuals and the state as whole.
Levin’s testimony tracked an 80-page report he and Professor Clive Belfield of the City University of New York prepared for the plaintiffs for a $15,000 fee.
Key points of that report are:
• Lifetime earnings grow with education. The report estimates those at $459,200 for a high school dropout and $696,300 for a higher school graduate. The report used high school graduation as the benchmark for educational attainment. Earnings are higher for people with some college and with college degrees.
• Lack of high school diplomas costs the state. A person who fails to graduate from high school imposes a fiscal burden of $140,100 on the state, in terms of government services provided to that person minus taxes paid.
• The broader social-burden cost of a dropout, factoring in such things as workforce productivity, lost economic opportunities because of a badly trained workforce and costs of crime, is calculated at $524,400.
• The report said expanded preschool opportunities, higher teacher salaries, small class sizes and some high school reforms can increase high school graduation rates. “The benefits of these investments (estimated at $74,400 per student) significantly exceed the costs. … Spending on education – particularly on reforms that raise high school graduation rates – should be viewed as a public investment, yielding a stream of benefits across decades,” the report concludes.
Highlights of the day:
TONE: Levin’s testimony had the air of a fairly interesting economics class; the cross-examination of former state Sen. Sue Windels and former Rep. Jack Pommer in the afternoon had the whiff of a debate tournament.
- “I try not to write on areas in which I don’t have at least a little expertise.” – Levin
- “Colorado’s level of spending is basically the same as Alabama’s, the same as Arkansas.” – Levin
- “Bake sales weren’t going to solve this problem of chronic underfunding.” – Windels said of the realization she had after starting to study school finance.
MANEUVERING: The plaintiffs’ lawyers basically put Windels (former chair of the Senate Education Committee) and Pommer (former chair of the Joint Budget Committee) on the stand to testify about a 2005 legislative school finance study and the fact that it didn’t lead to substantial legislation. They also were asked about whether the legislature ever had studied the true costs of K-12 education (they said it hasn’t) and about their definitions of a “thorough and uniform” system of schools, as required by the state constitution.
On cross-examination, state lawyers Jonathan Fero and Nick Heinke essentially asked if the two had violated their oaths to uphold the state constitution by voting for school finance bills they believed violated the thorough and uniform clause.
There were lots of objections from plaintiffs’ lawyers, some upheld and others not, and careful answers from Windels and Pommer.
Pommer had a practical answer: “If I think a bill is moving in the right direction … then I would support it” but that he wouldn’t vote for something that had been ruled unconstitutional by the Colorado Supreme Court. “We live in a political environment, and we have to compromise.”
DOCUMENTS: Much of Windels’ and Pommer’s testimony focused on a 2005 school finance report by the legislative study committee. You can read it here.
UPCOMING: On Thursday, lawyers from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are expected to begin presenting their case. They represent a separate group of plaintiffs that includes parents from four high-poverty school districts – Greeley, Mapleton, Rocky Ford and Sheridan.
Thursday’s witnesses may include some of the plaintiffs, Sheridan Superintendent Michael Clough and Kathy Escamilla from the CU-Boulder School of Education.
On Friday, Stanford professor Linda Darling-Hammond is scheduled to testify for both sets of plaintiffs, talking about the issues and costs involved in educator effectiveness. (Read her pretrial report.)