Denver Judge Blows Up Colorado Education Spending

A Denver judge blew the state budget apart yesterday.

In a ruling that could have multi-billion dollar consequences for Colorado's budget, a Denver judge ruled the state's school funding system is not "thorough and uniform" as mandated by the state constitution.

The state's school funding system "is not rationally related to the mandate to establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of free public schools," District Judge Sheila Rappaport said in her 183-page ruling in which she called the system "unconscionable."

"It is also apparent that increased funding will be required," Rappaport said in her ruling, saying lawmakers would be given time to remedy the situation.

Here's the "money" quote.

The lawsuit [Lobato vs. State of Colorado] seeks no specific sum of money, but plaintiffs have pointed to studies estimating the state is underfunding education by as much as $4 billion.

The state now spends more than 40 percent, or $3.2 billion in the 2010-11 fiscal year that ended in June, of its almost $7 billion general fund on K-12 schools.

Look at those numbers again. Colorado spends $3.2 billion on schools now. If they were to spend the additional $4 billion the plaintiffs want, that would total $7.2 billion or more than the entire state budget.

Colorado voters made it perfectly clear in November that they didn't want to raise taxes even for schools. That's going to be a challenge for legislators as they work to meet the court's requirements. No matter what they do, it will almost certainly require Constitutional amendments to change taxation and spending requirements encoded therein.

Democrats will almost certainly target TABOR, though except for the voter approval of new taxes, it hasn't had much to do with the current "crisis". They really don't like that they have to ask before they take more of your money. Dems will probably fight to keep Amendment 23 as well but I think many Democrats realize that mandatory spending increases become a problem when the income doesn't increase with it.

Ripping all of that apart could be problematic as well given Colorado's single subject laws. A ballot issue may only tackle one subject at a time. If it takes more than one, there's always the possibility that voters will approve some of the issues and not others. For example, they may approve a spending bill but not the tax bill.

The legal wonks at the Independence Institute will probably have more on what this means Constitutionally. I'll post a link in Seeing Stars when I see it.

My concern is that no matter how much money we throw at the school system, nothing will change. That's been the trend for the last 40 years and this ruling doesn't change that.

The biggest loser in the short term will be higher ed. As a stop gap, I can see the state pulling all funding from the state colleges and universities and giving it to K-12. They've done it in the past and will do it again.

There was more to the law suit that scares me. I haven't read the ruling so I'm not sure if and how it was addressed. Here's the description from the Valley Courier. (emphasis mine)

The Public School Finance Act (PSFA) is condemned in the suit for failing to provide adequate funding for children with special needs, children learning English and gifted and talented students. The suit also points to a lack of funding for capital construction projects and questions the fiscal advisability of charter schools and schools of choice.

In other words, the plaintiffs want to do away with school choice.

All of that said, I think there's a tremendous opportunity here. Colorado's budget process is insane. In an meeting with Scott Tipton before the 2010 election, he said that only three percent of Colorado's spending is discretionary. The rest is mandated by Constitutional or other legal requirements. The Lobato decision provides an opportunity to change that.

There's also a chance to completely blow up the current educational system in Colorado and put it back together in a more efficient, more successful and more responsive way. In effect, it would be like declaring the educational system bankrupt and going into a reorganization. There is a real chance for educational reform.

In a (badly proofread) post a couple of years ago, I proposed eliminating grade levels as we know them. Rather than advancing students through every subject at the same rate, allow students to take subjects as fast (or as slow) as they need. This eliminates the "need" for social promotion while giving students the opportunity to reach their full potential. Schools spend so much time and money trying to lift the worst performing students that they often forget about the highest performers.

If we're going to reform education in Colorado, let's actually reform it and make it something better.