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


legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

PHOTO: TN.gov
Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.


To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.


The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.