Supporters of an education lawsuit against the state of Colorado celebrated this weekend after a district judge ruled that the state severely underfunds public schools and provides inadequate resources to its disabled, poor and minority students.
In a 183-page ruling in favor of the plaintiffs Friday, Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport concluded that Colorado's education funding is "irrational and inadequate" and violates the state constitution's pledge to provide a "thorough and uniform" education system. (Read the full report)
"There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded," Rappaport writes in the report. "This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system."
Rappaport's ruling concludes a five-week trial in one of the most provocative education lawsuits in Colorado's history. Lobato v. State of Colorado was filed in 2005, arguing that the state's education system is unconstitutional, by failing to comply with a clause in the state constution that calls for a "thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state."
"The finance system must be revised to assure that funding is rationally related to the actual costs of providing a thorough and uniform system of public education," Rappaport writes. "It is also apparent that increased funding will be required."
Rappaport's ruling also notes that the court will not determine what the proper amount of funding required will be, and is instead up to the state legislature to fund and implement a system that provides students with the skills and knowledge needed for higher education, citizenship and careers.
"It means that we're finally going to have to answer the questions of what are we expected to do and what are you going to give us to do that with," Jan Tanner, board president of Colorado Springs District 11, told KKTV. "There's no connection right now with those requirements and seeing that we have the resources to make sure it happens."
The plaintiffs don't seek dollar figure claims, but consultants hired for the case estimated that Colorado is underfunding public schools by $4 billion. The latest developments in the case could drastically affect the state's budget for the coming year, as Colorado already spent more than 40 percent, or about $3.2 billion, last year on public schools -- of its nearly $7 billion general fund, according to the Denver Post.
The state is expected to appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court, but if Rappaport's ruling holds, the state would be forced to make draconian to other sectors like transportation and health care since Colorado voters last month rejected a measure that would have increased sales and income taxes to shore up $2.9 billion for public education over four years.
"Paying for quality education for our children has always been a priority. The challenge in front of us now is providing a quality education in the face of ever increasing entitlement spending," Republican state House Speaker Frank McNulty said in a statement Friday, according to Reuters.
Rappaport's decision also comes as the state faces a large budget deficit. Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing a total $679 million in cuts for the following year, $89 million of which will be from K-12 funding, the Aurora Sentinel reports.
All this calls into question whether complying with the ruling while also adequately funding other state programs is feasible -- And what would happen if voters, like in November, reject another possible proposal for tax increases.
But for now, "the voters can't ignore a court order," the plaintiffs' lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt said in a news conference Saturday, EdNews Colorado reports.
November's voter rejection came after lawmakers cut school funding by $200 million earlier this year, leading to increased class sizes and rounds of teacher layoffs. Now, Rappaport's ruling for increased school funding also draws on issues of financial resources with respect to class sizes and student performance -- and whether funneling billions more into Colorado's education system will visibly and effectively improve the state's quality of education.
Since the onset of the recession, class sizes surged -- following a general decline over nearly four decades, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Education activists have repeatedly pointed to data showing that education expenditures have soared as student performance on exams have plateaued.
Still, the debate over funding, class sizes and the perhaps consequent student achievement remains complex. A study from the 1980s showed that smaller class sizes were more effective in early years, but less so in later grades.
"Where you're dramatically reducing class size, in low-advantage communities in lower grades when kids are learning things like how to read, that's been beneficial," Duncan told The Huffington Post in October. "We've done it elsewhere, spent billions of dollars on class size without any demonstrable benefit. We need to talk about class size, and quality."