From the Statehouse

High court revives Lobato “adequacy” suit

The Colorado Supreme Court Monday ruled 4-3 to overturn a lower court decision in the case of Lobato vs. State of Colorado, opening the way for lengthy judicial deliberations on whether the state’s school finance system is adequately funded.

StockSupCt101909While any final decision likely is years in the future, the high court’s ruling adds an important new dimension to the ongoing debate over school funding, a discussion that has been sharpened by the state’s severe budget challenges.

The Lobato case started in 2005 when large 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.

The high court’s decision Monday overturned all that and sends the case back to district court for trial.

The plaintiffs and education groups were buoyed by the decision.

But, Attorney General John Suthers, defending the state in the case, said, “This decision is not good news for the Colorado taxpayer. The majority opinion suggests the plaintiffs, who are seeking additional tax funding that could potentially involve billions of dollars, might find relief from the courts even though the legislature and the voters have determined current educational funding is adequate.”

According to a statement issued by Children’s Voice, plaintiff Anthony Lobato said, “We have been fighting for far too long for someone to recognize our children’s futures are in jeopardy.  I am extremely relieved and grateful that, after nearly five years in the court system, we will finally have an opportunity to expose the dire financial condition of our schools in this State.”  Children’s Voices is the public-interest law firm that originally brought the lawsuit.

George Welsh, superintendent of Center School District, said,  “We welcome the opportunity to show how the state’s lack of funding for education affects all students, from the lack of early childhood education programs to inadequate preparation for college and the work force.  The state’s lack of funding is preventing us from providing kids with a meaningful 21st century education.”

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.”

That would seem unlikely, given the bleak revenue situation and constitutional restrictions facing lawmakers. It’s expected that the 2010 session will have to take an narrow interpretation of Amendment 23, which sets minimum levels of school funding, just to balance the 2010-11 state budget.

In an interview with EdNews, Gebhardt said, “We obviously are pleased with the court’s decision,” adding that the next step would be filing an amended complaint. “We are hoping for a trial within 12 to 18 months, hopefully on the 12 side.”

Others in the education world also were pleased by the ruling.

Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Boards, said, “I think it’s a good decision and they struck a good balance. … We’ll see how it sorts out.” DeLay commented that it could take four to five years for the case ultimately to be decided. “Hopefully a decision will come between this recession and the next recession.”

“We have long been on the side of the people who say we have a school funding problem in the state of Colorado. This moves that discussion forward,” said Deb Fallin of the Colorado Education Association. “It will be years, but this is another step.”

Several education and other advocacy groups are part of the 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.

Here are some key portions of the high court’s decision:

“The Colorado Supreme Court holds that the plaintiffs may challenge the current state’s public school financing system as violating the Colorado constitutional mandate of the education clause requiring a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education,” the decision said. “Following 1982 precedent, the court holds that it is the responsibility of the judiciary to determine whether the plaintiffs prove that the public school finance system is not rationally related to this constitutional mandate.”

The “1982 precedent” was the Lujan case, which successfully challenged the equity of the school finance system. The Lobato case challenges the system’s adequacy.

“The court’s task is not to determine ‘whether a better financing system could be devised,’ … but merely to determine whether the system passes constitutional muster. …

“Accordingly, the plaintiffs must be provided the opportunity to prove their allegations.  To be successful, they must prove that the state’s current public school financing system is not rationally related to the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education.  …   If the trial court finds the current system of public finance irrational and thus unconstitutional, then that court must permit the legislature a reasonable period of time to change the funding system so as to bring the system in compliance with the Colorado Constitution.”

The high court also ruled that the existence of Amendment 23 is not a defense against any challenge to the school finance system’s adequacy, because A23 only sets minimum funding levels.

The opinion was written by Justice Michael Bender and supported by Chief Justice Mary Mullarky and justices Gregory Hobbs and Alex Martinez. All were appointed to the court by Democratic former Gov. Roy Romer.

Justice Nancy Rice wrote the dissent, citing various federal and state cases and a different interpretation of the Lujan case to argue that school finance is not a proper area for court jurisdiction. Rice, a Romer appointee, was joined in dissent by justices Nathan Coats and Allison Eid. Those two were appointed by Republican former Gov. Bill Owens.

While “adequacy” might currently 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 recently gave to a legislative study panel, funding an “ideal” K-12 education system could cost nearly $9 billion a year, compared to the $6.1 billion currently spent.

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

Read the decision here


rules and regs

New York adds some flexibility to its free college scholarship rules. Will it be enough for more students to benefit?

PHOTO: Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo
Governor Andrew Cuomo delivered his 2017 regional State of the State address at the University at Albany.

New York is offering more wiggle room in a controversial “Excelsior” scholarship requirement that students stay in-state after graduating, according to new regulations released Thursday afternoon.

Members of the military, for example, will be excused from the rule, as will those who can prove an “extreme hardship.”

Overall, however, the plan’s rules remain strict. Students are required to enroll full-time and to finish their degrees on time to be eligible for the scholarship — significantly limiting the number who will ultimately qualify.

“It’s a high bar for a low-income student,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a leading expert on college affordability and a professor at Temple University. “It’s going to be the main reason why students lose the scholarship.”

The scholarship covers free college tuition at any state college or university for students whose families earn less than $125,000 per year. But it comes with a major catch: Students who receive Excelsior funding must live and work in New York state for the same number of years after graduation as they receive the scholarship. If they fail to do so, their scholarships will be converted to loans, which the new regulations specify have 10-year terms and are interest-free.

The new regulations allow for some flexibility:

  • The loan can now be prorated. So if a student benefits from Excelsior for four years but moves out of state two years after graduation, the student would only owe two years of payments.
  • Those who lose the scholarship but remain in a state school, or complete a residency in-state, will have that time count toward paying off their award.
  • Members of the military get a reprieve: They will be counted as living and working in-state, regardless of where the person is stationed or deployed.
  • In cases of “extreme hardship,” students can apply for a waiver of the residency and work requirements. The regulations cite “disability” and “labor market conditions” as some examples of a hardship. A state spokeswoman said other situations that “may require that a student work to help meet the financial needs of their family” would qualify as a hardship, such as a death or the loss of a job by a parent.
  • Students who leave the state for graduate school or a residency can defer repaying their award. They would have to return to New York afterwards to avoid having the scholarship convert to a loan.

Some of law’s other requirements were also softened. The law requires students to enroll full-time and take average of 30 credits a year — even though many SUNY and CUNY students do not graduate on time. The new regulations would allow students to apply credits earned in high school toward the 30-credit completion requirement, and stipulates that students who are disabled do not have to enroll full-time to qualify.

language proficiency

Educators working on creating more bilingual students worry new state requirements aren’t high enough

A second grade class at Bryant Webster K-8 school in Denver (Joe Amon, The Denver Post).

Colorado educators who led the way in developing high school diploma endorsements recognizing bilingual students worry that new legislation establishing statewide standards for such “seals of biliteracy” sets the bar too low.

Two years ago, Denver Public Schools, Eagle County Schools and the Adams County School District 14 started offering the seal of biliteracy to their students. The three districts worked together to find a common way to assess whether students are fluent in English and another language, and recognize that on high school diplomas. Advocates say the seal is supposed to indicate to colleges and employers that students are truly bilingual.

A bill passed by state legislators this year that will go into effect in August sets a path for districts that want to follow that lead by outlining the minimum that students must do to prove they are fluent in English and in another language.

According to the new law, students must meet a 3.0 grade point average in their English classes and also earn a proficient score on the 11th grade state test, or on Advanced Placement or IB tests. For showing proficiency in the second language, students can either earn proficient scores on nationally recognized tests — or meet a 3.0 grade point average after four years of language classes.

Although educators say the law sends a message of support for bilingual education, that last criteria is one part of what has some concerned.

“It allows for proficiency in a world language to be established solely by completing four years of high school language classes,” said Jorge Garcia, executive director of the Colorado Association for Bilingual Education. “Language classes in one school district may have a different degree of rigor than they do in another.”

The second language criteria should be comparable to the English criteria, several educators said. In the requirements set by Denver, Eagle County and Adams 14, students must at a minimum demonstrate language proficiency through a test score, or in some cases with a portfolio review and interview if a test is not available.

The three districts also catered their requirements based on what each community said was important. In Adams 14 and in Eagle schools, students must perform community service using their language skills. Students also have to do an interview in both languages with a community panel.

“Our school district team developed the community service criteria because we wanted our kids to have authentic practice in their languages,” said Jessica Martinez, director of multilingual education for Eagle County Schools. “We also wanted students to be a bridge to another community than their own. For example, one group of students created academic tutoring services for their peers who don’t yet speak a lot of English. Another student started tutoring her mom and her parents’ friends so they could get their GED.”

The state law doesn’t require students to do community service. But it does allow school districts to go above the state’s requirements when setting up their biliteracy programs.

“Thoughtful school districts can absolutely address these concerns,” Garcia said.

Several school districts in the state are looking to start their own programs. In March, the school board for the Roaring Fork School District in Glenwood Springs voted to start offering the seal. Summit School District also began offering the seal this year.

Leslie Davison, the dual language coordinator for Summit, said that although her program will change in the next year as she forms more clear requirements around some new tests, she will continue to have higher requirements than the state has set.

This year her students had prove proficiency in their second language by taking a test in that language. They also had to demonstrate English proficiency through the ACT. In addition, students did oral presentations to the community in both languages.

“Their expectations aren’t as high as mine are,” Davison said. “We’ll probably stay with our higher-level proficiencies. I do have some work to do in terms of how that’s going to look for next year, but I certainly don’t want to just use seat time.”

Meanwhile, the districts that started the seal are increasing their commitment to biliteracy so as many students as possible can be eligible to earn seals in the future.

The Adams 14 school district in Commerce City is using Literacy Squared, a framework written by local researchers for teaching students to read English by strengthening literacy in the native language. The program is being rolled up year by year and will serve students in 34 classrooms from preschool through fourth grade in the fall.

In Eagle County, Martinez said parents have shown such a strong demand for biliteracy that most elementary schools are now dual language schools providing instruction to all students in English for half of the school day and in Spanish for the other half.

Both districts are also increasing the offerings of language classes in middle and high school. The options are important for students who are native English speakers so they too can become bilingual and access the seal. For students whose primary language is not English, the classes can help ensure they don’t lose their primary language as they learn English.

Of Eagle’s 25 students who graduated with a seal of biliteracy this year, 17 were native Spanish speakers and eight were native English speakers.

“We want all kids to see their bilingualism is an asset,” Martinez said. “It’s huge for them.”