Budget & Finance

Colorado Judge Rules Against State’s School Funding Model

By Sean Cavanagh — December 12, 2011 3 min read
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In one of the nation’s most closely watched school finance cases, a Colorado district court judge has ruled that the state’s system for funding schools is “irrational” and “divorced from the reality” of the state’s constitution, whose requirements it fails to meet.

In a strongly worded, 183-page opinion issued Friday, Judge Sheila Rappaport concluded that Colorado’s school funding model has been “completely unresponsive” to mounting and costly academic mandates placed on schools.

The state’s attorney general, elected Republican John W. Suthers, will consult with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper on a response to the ruling, said a spokeman for the attorney general, Mike Saccone. But the two state officials have been on the same page regarding the lawsuit, and an appeal of the judge’s ruling is likely, Saccone said.

School funding decisions are “best left to the General Assembly and the governor,” the AG spokesman said. “It was clearly very tempting for the court to [step] into this public policy debate, and that’s what the court did.”

School-finance lawsuits have had a major impact in shaping the funding systems in some states, particularly in cases where judges found that the money flow was inadequate or in violation of state constitutions. In addition to the Colorado legal challenge, court fights over school funding are playing out over in Texas and Montana, and another one focused on rural education was recently settled in Alaska.

In her ruling, Judge Rappaport delved into an issue that is at the heart of many disputes over school funding, and education policy, more generally: the link between the amount of money provided to schools and student achievement. The judge concluded that there is a direct connection between Colorado student achievement and schools’ struggles to meet various standards, on the one hand, and the shortcomings of the state’s school-finance model. As she put it:

All of the evidence demonstrates a systemic failure to provide all students with the knowledge and skills mandated by the education clause and standards-based education. This failure is directly correlated to inadequate and irrational funding."

Rappaport’s ruling is certain to prove controversial, particularly among those who are skeptical that channeling more money to schools is crucial to boosting student and school performance.

The judge criticized the arguments of several witnesses for the state, including economist Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, at Stanford University. Hanushek had questioned the link between school spending and higher student achievement, arguing that gains in student and school performance depend more on spending that money wisely.

The judge found that Hanushek’s position “contradicts testimony and documentary evidence from dozens of well-respected educators in the state, defies [logic], and is statistically flawed.”

Rappaport seemed to have been more convinced by the arguments of Linda Darling-Hammond, also of Stanford University, who testified on behalf of the plaintiffs. Darling-Hammond had examined the link between Colorado school funding and school performance and found “a very strong statistical relationship between achievement in reading and math and spending, measuring expenditures in four different ways,” the judge explained.

Hanushek, not surprisingly, wasn’t impressed by the conclusions in the ruling, which he said echoed the plaintiffs’ flawed reasoning.

“The courts are not a good place to go to judge scientific arguments,” Hanushek told me.

He disagreed, in particular, with her interpretation of the effectiveness of school-funding schemes in other states, such as New Jersey, on whether major injections of school funding have closed achievement gaps. While the Colorado decision is likely to be appealed, Hanushek did not believe the ruling is likely to have much of an influence on the overall direction of legal decisions on school funding.

Whether Colorado lawmakers are interested in pouring more money into their states’ education system remains to be seen. In November, state voters rejected an attempt to increase the funding flow, by defeating a measure at the ballot box that would have raised $3 billion over five years for education through the imposition of new sales and income taxes.

In her ruling, Rappaport also blasted the arguments put forward by former Colorado state Senate President John Andrews, a Republican, on behalf of the state.

“He has signed a pledge calling for the end of government involvement in education,” the judge wrote. “He reveres the educational system we had in this country in the 1700s because there were few government-operated schools.”

The final word on the matter seems likely to come from a higher court.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.