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Ray of Hope for True School Finance Reform in Post-Lobato Lawsuit Landscape

Apologies to all if I seem a little off-kilter today. You see, it’s finally sunk in that for the first time I can remember, there is a world of Colorado education without a Lobato funding adequacy lawsuit. A few months ago, as the two sides argued their respective cases before the state Supreme Court justices, I remarked how we need school finance reform, not a constitutional crisis. And yesterday’s ruling gives us that helpful reprieve.

I can understand, no doubt, why emotions are running high for some plaintiffs who expended so much time and energy fighting to sway the judges into ordering more education funds from the state tax coffers. (Then again, there’s not so much sympathy for the school boards that voted to spend taxpayer dollars suing for more tax dollars and forcing the state to spend money to defend the case. How many of these school districts contributed funds, and how much?)

As Professor Joshua Dunn noted in a radio conversation yesterday, one can only wonder what sort of success the Lobato plaintiff team might have had instead spending the past 8 years focused on improving education without expecting the judiciary to give perceived solutions to authentic problems. I use the word “perceived” for a reason.

In the same radio interview, Dunn explains well the seriously flawed analysis that underwrites adequacy claims — $1.35 to $4.15 billion per year, according to the Lobato plaintiffs and District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport, who pasted their findings into her decision. Schools do need a certain amount of money to provide an effective education. But after awhile, each additional dollar brings less and less value until it reaches zero or worse.

The lack of correlation between increased funding and academic outcomes has been well documented. Overall, the current K-12 enterprise isn’t designed to use money efficiently. As University of Washington researchers noted after extensive studies of the nation’s school funding systems:

…money is used so loosely in public education—in ways that few understand and that lack plausible connections to student learning—that no one can say how much money, if used optimally, would be enough.

But how much money are Colorado schools currently spending? Not as easy to answer as you might think, but a couple recent indicators may affect one’s view of the situation. First, the National Education Association reports on Table H-11 of its latest Rankings and Estimates that in 2011-12 Colorado ranked 26th at $10,001 spent per pupil, ahead of most states in our region.

Meanwhile, new analysis from the Education Intelligence Agency finds that from 2006 to 2011 — going well into the painful recession years — Colorado increased per pupil spending by 8.3 percent, and per pupil spending on employee compensation by 12.6 percent. Based on the examples of Falcon School District 49 and a few others, I contend that there is still significant room for innovative efficiency with existing dollars.

In the end, I’m certainly glad judicial sanity prevailed. Colorado’s current system of school funding meets the constitutional requirement. Even if little old me is still trying to get oriented to the new post-Lobato landscape. It’s now up to the state’s voters to decide what they want to do with a pending ballot question to raise taxes “for the kids.”

All I ask is that you arm yourself with the facts and think carefully first.