From the Statehouse

Lawsuit: Education clause trumps TABOR

The revised school-funding lawsuit filed Monday argues that the state constitutional requirement for “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” creates a “substantive” right to which “procedural amendments” such as TABOR “must yield.”

The new complaint in Lobato v. State, made possible by an October 2009 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that revived the original 2005 case, raises the issue of whether Colorado spends enough on its schools at a time when the legislature is considering historic cuts in K-12 spending.

The case also is expected to set into motion years of judicial and perhaps legislative debate on some big constitutional and policy questions:

  • What educational rights does the state constitution confer?
  • What is “adequate” funding of the schools?
  • Is it up to the courts or legislature to determine that?
  • Does the state constitution’s original language about a “thorough and uniform” system of schools – and any rights that language confers on citizens – override such later amendments as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, which regulates property taxes?

The plaintiffs’ claim about TABOR, deep in the 38-page complaint, reads: “The ability of the state and school districts to provide and maintain sufficient funding and other resources and to implement a system of public school finance that meets the substantive right to a quality public education established by the Education Clause is fundamentally impaired by the taxing and spending conditions imposed by TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment. These procedural amendments to the constitution must yield to the substantive rights guaranteed by the Education Clause.”

The Lobato case started in 2005 when a 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.

On Oct. 19, 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to revive the lawsuit, sending it back to the trial court.

The updated suit adds new plaintiffs – the Jefferson County and Colorado Springs 11 districts plus a group of metro-area parents. The parents and their children include residents of the Adams 14, Boulder Valley, Denver, Pueblo County and Woodlin schools districts, plus the San Luis Valley districts.

There now are more than 30 individuals and 17 school districts on the suit.

The suit also cites more recent facts about the condition of school funding in Colorado.

As was the case when the lawsuit originally was filed, the core of the plaintiffs’ argument is that Colorado public schools are so under-funded that students are denied an adequate education, in violation of that state constitutional mandate of a “thorough and uniform” system. The suit also claims the current system violates the constitutional local control rights of schools boards.

“The state has persistently failed to fund public education in a rational and sufficient manner and at the levels required to meet constitutional and statutory standards of quality,” the complaint reads.

“The Colorado public school finance system particularly fails to provide sufficient funding to provide a constitutionally adequate, quality education for the under-served student populations in the state.”

The suit repeated uses the words “irrational and inadequate” and also has some critical things to say about state education reform efforts in recent years.

“Education reform legislation has established instructional and other substantive goals and mandates without analyzing the cost to attain those goals or providing the means to fund the accomplishment of those mandates. The General Assembly has enacted education reform legislation without corresponding reform to the system of school finance.”

The suit seeks a court declaration that the current system isn’t rationally related to the constitutional education mandate, doesn’t provide enough funding to fulfill that mandate and violates the constitutional rights of school districts. It asks injunctions directing the state to fix the system and establishing continuing court monitoring of any such efforts.

At the time of the high court’s ruling last autumn, 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.”

The legislature, faced with a continued decline in state revenues, already has cut just over 2 percent from 2009-10 state school support and is expected to reduce state aid by 6 percent or more in 2010-11.

Lawmakers and the Ritter administration are taking a narrow view of Amendment 23, arguing that its provision only apply to base school funding, which is about 75 percent of total state aid.

School districts were prepared for the 2009-10 cuts, given that they had to hold a total of $110 million in reserve until the legislature decided whether or not to release it.

Administrations and school boards around the state now are working in earnest to cut their 2010-11 budgets, and some boards already have taken the legal steps necessary to lay off teachers before the new budget year starts on July 1.

Several education and other advocacy groups were part of the original 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.

The school boards group, CASB, has been particularly active on the issue, including helping raise money to pay legal bills.

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

The lawsuit also cited a 2008 Colorado School Finance Project study that estimated a similar, $2.9 billion-a-year gap in adequate state funding.

The next step in the process will be filing of an answer by lawyers representing the state.

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

Do your homework

CSI New York

Will you close my school? Transfer school staff, parents and students worry about the new federal education law

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
A class at Brooklyn Frontiers High School

Jamie Hawkins marched to the front of a Brooklyn auditorium Tuesday night holding two pieces of paper.

One had information from her son’s Individualized Education Program, which showed that when he entered high school, he read at a second-grade level and did math at a sixth-grade level. The other, she said proudly, proved he graduated from high school.

The reason her son finished school is he attended Brooklyn Frontiers High School, she said, one of several schools in New York City designed specifically for students who have fallen behind.

“He got the skills that he needed,” she explained after her testimony. When asked if he would have graduated without Brooklyn Frontiers she said, “No. Absolutely not.”

Students, teachers and parents from the city’s transfer high schools — which serve students who are over-age and under-credited — crowded into the Prospect Heights Educational Campus on Tuesday for a hearing on the Every Student Succeeds Act, which they fear will treat their schools unfairly.

These schools present a conundrum for state officials. The new law requires that schools with graduation rates under 67 percent are targeted for improvement. But for transfer schools, many people testified at the hearing, that is often an unrealistic standard.

“The language of this legislation, the ESSA legislation, puts our schools in grave danger,” said Rachel Forsyth, director of partnership schools at Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit that works in multiple transfer schools.

So what will happen to transfer schools under New York’s draft ESSA plan? Are they really in danger? Here’s what we found out:

What does the plan currently say?

The state’s draft plan does not separate the way it evaluates transfer schools from how it judges traditional high schools — but it does gives all high schools some wiggle room.

Instead of using on-time (four-year) graduation rates, the state allows six-year graduation rates in its draft plan. That might not be enough for transfer schools, though. The average six-year graduation rate for transfer schools is 46.7 percent.

If a school does not meet a six-year graduation rate of 67 percent, it will be identified as a school that needs improvement.

Can the state make an exception for transfer schools under the law?

The state says all high schools have to reach a 67 percent graduation rate. Based on information the state’s education department has received from the U.S. Department of Education, there is no exemption for transfer high schools, state officials said.

But advocates say the law offers more leeway. Under the regulations approved by former U.S. Education Secretary John King, schools that serve special populations — such as alternative schools — were permitted to use different metrics than traditional high schools.

Those regulations have been undone by Congress, but the fact that they existed before shows the law allows that flexibility, said Ian Rosenblum, executive director of EdTrust-NY.

“We believe that the state can and should propose a different methodology for identifying specialized schools, such as transfer schools,” Rosenblum said.

What will happen if transfer schools are identified for improvement?

At one point during the hearing, a transfer school advocate gestured to the crowd and declared that if this plan moves forward, all the transfer schools represented in the room would soon cease to exist.

That is very unlikely to come to pass. Even if a school is identified as needing improvement, it would probably be several years before it could face any serious consequences under the new law, according to the state’s draft.

If a school is identified for Comprehensive School Improvement (CSI), it has three years to receive extra support and to implement an improvement plan. Then, it could be put into the state’s receivership program, which means it would likely have another two years to demonstrate improvement. If it does not demonstrate enough improvement, it risks being taken over by an outside receiver.

The state has already proven itself lenient in forcing an independent receiver on schools. So far, only one school in New York state has been threatened with takeover. According to state officials, once schools are in receivership, the state education commissioner has some flexibility in tracking their progress and determining whether schools should still be deemed struggling.

Still, any threat looms large for transfer schools, whose advocates say even if the worst-case scenario never plays out, they are still being rated by unfair metrics.

“We’re already working with kids who have been told repeatedly they are failures. Now we’re looking at a system where 90 percent of the [transfer] schools in the city will be looked at as failing schools,” Forsyth said. “I don’t think it’s really understanding the population we’re working with.”

State officials said they are aware of these concerns and will work to come up with a solution.

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.