Budget & Finance

Colorado Judge Rules Against State’s School Funding Model

By Sean Cavanagh — December 12, 2011 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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.

Related Tags:

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

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Budget & Finance Why Failing to Require Masks Could Cost Districts Millions Later
Some insurance providers are threatening to cancel districts' coverage this school year—particularly if they break statewide mask mandates.
9 min read
Image of a dial that assesses problems, dangers, risks, and liabilities.
Budget & Finance Will Teachers Get Vaccinated for $1,000?
More and more districts are offering cash to employees who get vaccinated, hoping that the money will help tamp down COVID-19 spread.
6 min read
Image of a dollar bill folded into an upward arrow.
Budget & Finance Opinion Three Tips for Spending COVID-19 Funds in Evidence-Based Ways
If COVID-19 funds targeted for evidence-based practices are going to deliver, it's crucial to be clear on what evidence is actually helpful.
3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Budget & Finance How Kids Benefit When Principals Get a Say in Spending Federal COVID-19 Aid
In some districts, principals play a key role in targeting federal pandemic relief money, but in other places they're left out.
8 min read
Nicole Moore, the principal at Indian Mills School, stands near the summer literacy program held in a small lot at Fawn Lake Village in Shamong, New Jersey on July 6, 2021. Moore worked with teachers to develop a summer literacy program for disadvantaged students who live in the district.
Nicole Moore, principal of Indian Mills School, in Shamong, N.J., worked with a teacher and the district superintendent to start a summer program using federal aid for COVID-19 relief.
Eric Sucar for Education Week