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Digging Up School Spending Figures in Colorado’s Ongoing Lobato Hearings

Welcome to Week 2 of 5 in Colorado’s ongoing school finance adequacy lawsuit, familiarly known as Lobato v State, or just the Lobato case. A report this morning from Ed News Colorado’s Todd Engdahl highlighted some of Monday’s key plaintiff testimony:

One of the main plaintiffs’ witnesses in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit testified Monday that his study projects Colorado needs to spent $10.3 billion a year on K-12 schools, an increase of $3.6 billion.

Justin Silverstein is vice president of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, a Denver-based research and consulting firm that produced a 96-page study projecting the funding Colorado school districts would need to support the demands of state requirements such as new content standards, tests and teacher evaluation systems. The firm was paid $115,000 by the plaintiffs for the study. [link added]

I think I just overheard one of my Education Policy Center friends ask where they could get $115,000 to conduct a study and write a report. But I digress.

Anyway, the lead sentence of that story caused me to do a little back-of-the-envelope math. $10.3 billion minus $3.6 billion = $6.7 billion. Diving deep into the murky waters of school funding statistics — where you can blindly pull a number of different dollar figures off the ocean floor — I have to ask: Where does that number come from?

I didn’t read all 96 pages word for word, so it must have come out in Mr. Silverstein’s testimony.

To help me find an answer, I went to the Colorado Department of Education’s most recent (2009-10) revenues and expenditures data. Table IV-C tells us that total K-12 expenditures were a little north of $10.2 billion. If you factor out the “Community Services” and “Other Expenditures” (which primarily includes money to buy and construct buildings, and pay off bonds), money spent on “Instruction” and “Support Services” is still greater than $7.5 billion.

The 96-page study for “Children’s Voices” (some other children, not this one) relied on two methods to determine the cost of an adequate education: “professional judgment” and “successful schools.” Dr. Jay P. Greene has done a more than adequate job explaining how it works:

Those methods include the “professional judgment approach,” which essentially consists of gathering a group of educators and asking them how much money they think they would need to provide an “adequate” education, Naturally, they need flying saucers, ponies, and a laser tag arena to ensure an adequate education….

There is also the “successful schools approach,” which looks at how much money a typical successful school spends and calls for all schools to spend at least that much. This of course ignores the fact that many successful schools spend less than the typical amount and are still successful. One would have thought it impossible for them to be successful with less money than that deemed necessary to succeed.

(By the way, I know of another method that finds we should be spending “a billion dollars per student” because “children aren’t worth money.” Economics lesson, anyone?)

Never mind where the money would have to come from if the plaintiffs (who have raised many thousands in tax dollars from school boards and paid $115,000 to write the report) win the legal argument against the state of Colorado. Either state funds for higher ed, prisons, courts (!) and human services would evaporate, or citizens’ wallets would be pried open to pay more taxes amid an already sluggish and overburdened economy.

Something’s gotta give. I just hope common sense and good judgment prevail here.