Who Is In Charge

High court reverses Lobato ruling

In a 4-2 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court has overturned a district court decision in the Lobato v. State lawsuit and ruled that the state’s current school finance system is constitutional.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe ruling, officially issued this morning, ends an eight-year court effort by a large group of parents and school districts to force changes in how the state’s schools are funded.

The decision quickly refocuses the broader school finance policy debate on the new funding formula proposed in Senate Bill 13-213, recently signed into law, and the $1 billion ballot measure that will be needed to support the new system.

Asked later Tuesday if the decision effectively closes the door on further school finance cases in the courts, lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Kathy Gebhardt said, “It could.” But, she added, “Reading between the lines, that was their [the justices’] intent.”

The decision

“The public school financing system enacted by the General Assembly complies with the Colorado Constitution,” Justice Nancy Rice wrote at the beginning of the court’s 27-page ruling. “It is rationally related to the constitutional mandate that the General Assembly provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education. … It also affords local school districts control over locally-raised funds and therefore over ‘instruction in the public schools.’ … As such, the trial court erred when it declared the public school financing system unconstitutional. We accordingly reverse.”

Learn more

Later in the ruling, Rice wrote, “While the trial court’s detailed findings of fact demonstrate that the current public school financing system might not be ideal policy, this Court’s task is not to determine ‘whether a better financing system could be devised, but rather to determine whether the system passes constitutional muster.’”

Rice was joined in the ruling by justices Brian Boatwright, Allison Eid and Nathan Coats. Chief Justice Michael Bender and Justice Gregory Hobbs dissented. Justice Monica Marquez, who earlier worked on the Lobato case while a member of the attorney general’s staff, did not participate in the case.

The ruling came less than three months after the court heard oral arguments in the case.

The dissents

Bender and Hobbs each wrote dissenting opinions to the majority opinion, and each signed the other’s dissent.

In his 18-page dissent, Bender wrote, “Today, the majority abdicates this court’s responsibility to give meaningful effect to the Education Clause’s guarantee that all Colorado students receive a thorough and uniform education. In my view, a thorough and uniform system of education must include the availability of qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks, access to modern technology, and safe and healthy facilities in which to learn. The record, however, reveals an education system that is fundamentally broken. … Colorado’s education system is, beyond any reasonable doubt, neither thorough nor uniform.”

The chief justice quoted extensively from the trial record about deficiencies in the state’s schools.

He wrote in in a footnote he would give the legislature five years to adopt a new system and would have continuing court supervision of those efforts.

Hobbs’ 20-page filing went deeply into the history of the state constitution, and he wrote, “In creating the ‘thorough and uniform’ requirement, the framers intended that the legislature would establish and maintain a complete and comprehensive system of public education that consistently affords Colorado children the opportunity to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to participate fully in the opportunities and challenges of a dynamically growing state.”

He concluded, “As the record makes clear, it may take years – and significant effort – to reshape the current school finance system into one capable of supporting our rapidly growing and diversifying schools in compliance with the Education Clause’s mandate. Colorado should face this critical issue head-on.”

Plaintiffs react

Lobato sisters
Taylor Lobato (right) speaks to reporters about the supreme court’s ruling. Her sister Alexa, also a plaintiff, is at the left.

Gebhardt called the decision “a simply devastating day for the children of Colorado.”

Taylor Lobato, a Center High School graduate who was one of the original plaintiffs in the case, said, “The door has been slammed in the faces of the children of Colorado. … It makes me sad; it makes me upset.”

George Welsh, superintendent of the Center schools, said the court’s decision means “the Legislature has permission to do more with less. … The court has decided they can’t help us … but the people can” if they elect lawmakers who support increased funding for schools. (Read more reaction here).

The issues in the case

The central issue in Lobato was whether the current school funding system was “rationally related” to the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” system of public schools, and with the requirements of school-reform laws passed in recent years.

Plaintiffs also argued that the current finance system violates another constitutional provision guaranteeing local control of schools.

District Judge Sheila Rappaport
Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport

Denver District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport agreed with the plaintiffs’ arguments in her December 2011 ruling and held the finance system to be unconstitutional.

But the high court ruled, “A ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state.” That requirement “simply establishes the constitutional floor upon which the General Assembly must build its education policy,” according to the decision.

Citing its ruling in an earlier school funding case, the court held such a system “does not demand absolute equality in the state’s provision of education services, supplies, or expenditures.” The court also ruled that local control is not violated by the current system.

Attorney General John Suthers and his staff also argued consistently that school finance was the responsibility of the “political” branches of government – the legislature and the governor – and wasn’t an area of judicial review.

When it revived the Lobato case in 2009 the supreme court ruled that the courts did have jurisdiction – called “justiciability” in legal language. Monday’s majority opinion specifically stated that the court had not changed its mind on that issue.

Gebhardt said she wasn’t sure how to interpret the decision. “I don’t really know how to get in the heads of the justices. … I am a little concerned they set the bar so low,” she said, adding, “I read the opinion, and they didn’t give us any guideposts. … There’s no guidance in there as to what a thorough and uniform system is.”

She also said she was disappointed that “all of the facts and all of the evidence were completely disregarded.”

Implications of the ruling

There could have been far-reaching implications if the court had upheld Rappaport’s decision, perhaps including major changes in education laws by the legislature and years of continuing court review.

Cost estimates presented during the five-week trial in 2011 projected that the state might need as much as an additional $4 billion a year to fund an education system based on true costs.

Critics of Rappaport’s ruling, including Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative Republicans, warned that implementation of Rappaport’s decision could squeeze state spending for programs other than education and tie the legislature’s hands when setting budget priorities.

Such concerns appear to be off the table, given the court’s ruling. Because the case is based on state constitutional issues, there are no federal appeals possible. Gebhardt said the plaintiffs could ask the Colorado high court for a rehearing, but no decision has been made on doing that.

So, attention now turns to SB 13-213 and its accompanying ballot issue. (Proponents haven’t yet decided which version of the proposed tax increase to take to voters.)

While that plan proposes a significant increase in funding and major reallocations of how K-12 support is spent, it is not based on calculations of how much funding would be required to achieve the student competency goals contained in current state education policy.

Gebhardt, who has raised concerns in the past about SB 13-213, said Tuesday, “There are some good things in Sen. Johnston’s bill … there are some concerns.” She’s primarily concerned with a variation of the yet-to-be-submitted ballot measure that would alter Amendment 23, the current constitutional formula for funding schools. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver.

Who’s who in Lobato

Lawyer Kathy Gebhardt
Lobato case plaintiffs’ lawyer Kathy Gebhardt speaks with reporters. Members of the Lobato family are behind her.

The plaintiffs included 67 individuals – parents and students – who live in six school districts, plus 21 school districts. The Lobatos, a ranching family from the San Luis Valley, gave the case its name. They were represented by Children’s Voices, a non-profit Boulder law firm led by Gebhardt, and by a variety of private lawyers. An additional 27 individuals living in four districts entered the case later as intervening plaintiffs and were represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The defendants were Hickenlooper, the State Board of Education and education Commissioner Robert Hammond. They were represented by Attorney General John Suthers and his staff.

The plaintiffs had support in a dozen “friend of the court” briefs representing 28 organizations or groups of people, including the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the ACLU of Colorado and the Bell Policy Center. A friend of the court is referred to as “amicus curiae” in legal language.

A smaller number of amicus briefs were filed in support of the state’s case. Groups filing those briefs included the University of Colorado Board of Regents, three former governors, a coalition of business groups and two health care groups.

History of the case

First filed in 2005, the case was thrown out first by a Denver District Court judge and then by the Colorado Court of Appeals. Both ruled the courts didn’t have jurisdiction over school finance.

The supreme court overturned those decisions in an October 2009 ruling, a decision that came to be know as Lobato I. A five-week trial was held starting in August 2011, followed by Rappaport’s ruling late that year.

Reactions to Lobato ruling

Gov. John Hickenlooper – “We are complying to the requirements in the constitution. It doesn’t necessarily say that we have sufficient funding in education right now, and even after working hard to add additional funding this year to the construction of school buildings and the state education fund, we — clearly, I think most people would agree that we are underfunded in education. But I think what the Supreme Court said was that this was not the right way to increase that funding.”

Attorney General John Suthers
Attorney General John Suthers / File photo

Attorney General John Suthers – “The Attorney General’s Office is pleased that, after a long and circuitous route through the courts, the Colorado Supreme Court has finally recognized that the state’s education funding system satisfies constitutional standards. The court’s ruling confirms that the Lobato case has been a distraction from the task at hand – improving our education system through meaningful, effective and efficient change.” (Full text of statement)Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs – “The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision on the Lobato lawsuit is important to all of us; it affirms the constitutional authority of an elected legislative body to represent the people of this state. This is such a core tenet of our Constitution that I am surprised the court’s decision was not supported unanimously by the justices. The legislature is given the power to create a state budget for good reason – the people’s money needs to be protected from any group who would use the court system to bypass the Constitution.”

Kerrie Dallman, Colorado Education Association president – “It’s important to note the Supreme Court did not dispute that public education in Colorado would benefit from additional funding. Colorado students deserve a better-funded school system. That’s why our Legislature and Gov. Hickenlooper passed the Future School Finance Act. And that’s why our members will unite with a diverse coalition of groups dedicated to making public school investment a top priority in this state. Together, we will implore every community to do right by our kids this November and give them the resources they need to succeed.”

Thomas A. Saenz, MALDEF president – “The Colorado Supreme Court’s timorous decision today, abandoning the state to a dim future of inadequately educated citizenry, encapsulates the folly in failing to ensure, at a national level, an equitable and quality education for all. The public in Colorado can and should demand better of its public servants.”

public comment

Chicago sets community meetings on controversial school inventory report

Chicago Public Schools is hosting a dozen workshops for community members focused on a controversial report about local schools that offers an unprecedented window into the assets — and problems — in certain neighborhoods.

The district published report, called the Annual Regional Analysis, in September. It shows that, in many areas of the city, students are skipping out on nearby options, with less than half of district students attending their designated neighborhood schools.

The school district and Kids First, the school-choice group that helped compile the report, maintain that the analysis is meant to help guide investments and empower communities to engage in conversations about their needs.

The report divides the school district into 16 “planning regions” showing where schools are, what programs they offer, how they are performing, and how people choose among the options available.

The meetings will start with a presentation on the report. They will include small-group discussions to brainstorm how Chicago Schools can invest in and strengthen schools. The first workshop is scheduled for Wednesday at Collins Academy High School.

While the school district has touted the detailed report as a resource to aid planning and community engagement, several groups have criticized the document and questioned the district’s intent.  The document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that the district might use it to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

The parents group Raise Your Hand, the neighborhood schools’ advocacy group Generation All, and the community organizing group Blocks Together penned a letter recently scrutinizing the report’s reliance on school ratings, which are based largely on attendance and test scores.

“Research has shown that test scores and attendance tell us more about the socioeconomic status of the students’ communities rather than the teaching and learning inside the school itself,” they wrote. Chalkbeat Chicago first reported about the analysis in August after obtaining a copy of it. Yet, the document has sparked fears among supporters of neighborhood schools that it could be used to propose more school closings, turnarounds, and charter schools.

Here’s a list of the 12 community workshops, all of which all begin at 6 p.m.:

West Side Region: Oct. 17, Collins Academy High School

Greater Lincoln Park Region: Oct. 18, Lincoln Park High School

Greater Calumet Region: Oct. 22, Corliss High School

South Side Region: Nov. 7, Lindblom High School

Greater Stony Island Region: Nov. 8, Chicago Vocational Career Academy

Far Southwest Region: Nov. 13, Morgan Park High School

Far Northwest Side Region: Nov. 14, Steinmetz High School

Greater Milwaukee Region: Nov. 15, Wells High School

Greater Stockyards Region: Nov. 19, Kelly High School

Pilsen/Little Village Region: Nov. 26, Benito Juarez Community Academy

Greater Midway Region: Dec. 6, Curie Metropolitan High School

North Lakefront Region : Dec. 11, Roger C. Sullivan High School

Asked and answered

Why Rahm Emanuel and his schools chief believe an elite curriculum can resuscitate neighborhood schools

PHOTO: Steve Hendershot/Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel at Fiske Elementary in Woodlawn

Chicago is doubling down on a big bet that the International Baccalaureate program can be boon to its struggling neighborhood schools. We asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel and schools chief Janice Jackson to explain their calculus in a recent joint interview. Here’s what they told Chalkbeat contributor Steve Hendershot. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Chalkbeat: Why does it make sense to you to expand IB’s presence in Chicago?   

Janice Jackson: We’ve made investments in IB schools for a number of reasons: first, believing that schools need high-quality academic programs and a curriculum aligned to that, in order to really raise the bar for students and make sure that they are being presented with grade-level appropriate materials.

But in the case of IB, it’s rigorous and grade-level appropriate, but also takes a global look, which we think is one of the things that students should be focused on.

When we look at our metrics, we’ve already seen a dramatic improvement in schools that have a wall-to-wall IB program [offering only IB and not other curriculum], and we’ve seen that outlined in a few different ways at the high school level. It has resulted in higher graduation rates at some of our neighborhood schools that have adopted wall-to-wall programs.

And more important, at the elementary level, we’ve seen an improvement in standardized test scores for students that have access to a full IB program. So there’s demonstrated success that we can point to.

But the thing that I personally appreciate as an educator is the training that comes along with that. The teachers become a part of a network of highly accomplished teachers and they receive this training that is world-class. And then our students right here in Chicago and our neighborhoods get the benefit of that.

Rahm Emanuel: There’s two things I would say. One, for the parent’s side, what we’re trying to do is create what I call IB neighborhoods. So if you want to go to the Lincoln Park neighborhood or the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you can now go there and have your children in an IB literally from first grade to 12th grade, and there’s a continuum, there are feeder schools. Rather than parents moving out to the suburbs, they have one of the most sought-after academic programs. We have more people trying to apply, both principals and parents, to get the IB.

Second, I want to echo something Janice said and then underline it — the teachers love it because it frees them up to be the educators that they chose to be. The students get a rigorous education and the teachers get liberated to be educators. So that’s why I think it works.

Chalkbeat: That’s something I heard from IB’s parent organization as well — freedom from teaching to the test.

Emanuel: Listen, there’s a number of teachers I talk to regularly, and they’ll tell you that the moment their school went IB, the creative juices, the creativity, the collective energy that happened. It’s not an accident. Parents are flocking to it, parents are seeking it and principals get it because it sparks something. And then obviously our students are the beneficiaries of that.

The University of Chicago study from 2012 indicated that IB’s great postsecondary outcomes don’t depend on whether students actually earn the IB Diploma. Still, Chicago lags there — in the year of the study only 20 percent of CPS students earned the IB Diploma compared with 70 percent nationwide. Is that a number you’re focused on improving?

Jackson: Definitely the IB Diploma is the North Star. But if we could just take a step back, the plan that the mayor announced a couple of weeks ago around creating these IB programs which includes feeder schools that would feed into our high school programs is our effort to better prepare kids for the rigor of the IB program at the high school level.

So in many of our schools, when we launched, we started with the Middle Years Program, but now more and more we’re seeing the need to start at the primary level. So we’re looking to expose students a lot earlier, believing that that will make the IB diploma program more accessible to them.

Emanuel: I know a family with twins where one child got accepted to one of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city and the other one did not, but got accepted to the IB. They’ve now graduated. And first, the IB was more rigorous than the selective-enrollment academically. And second, both twins went to the University of Wisconsin and in their freshman year, the IB child was cruising.

I don’t want to over-color this because they’re both succeeding, but the adjustment to college was harder for the child who came out of one of the top selective-enrollment schools. That only underscores what the original U of C study in 2012 told us.

I want to underscore one other piece of data. When we started this, the goal was to make the International Baccalaureate not a backup to the selective enrollment, but a competitive, qualitative choice. In the district’s GoCPS enrollment portal, almost a quarter of the kids that got into our best selective-enrollment schools — 23 percent pick IB or artistic schools.

It’s becoming a true qualitative choice and competitor to the selective-enrollment schools. I think that’s good for the city. It’s good for parents, it’s good for the students and it picks up everybody else’s game.

Jackson: Let me add one thing from the teacher’s perspective. As we traveled throughout the city to host roundtables with teachers, [we heard that] teachers don’t want to spend a bunch of time developing curriculum, spending their whole weekend pulling out assessments and lessons for the students.

With the IB program, a lot of that work has been done for them. It’s research-based and it has a history of success, so it gives them more time to spend assessing their kids, working directly with them and allowing for that freedom and creativity, and we know all kids thrive in that type of an environment.

Chalkbeat: Do you think IB’s teacher training and framework pay dividends beyond the IB classes themselves? I’ve heard the idea that there’s a noticeable effect schoolwide.

Jackson: Yeah, it is definitely one of the outcomes. Because if you start with the Middle Years Program, if the teacher is implementing it with fidelity, they’re going to start to push on those intermediate grades and those primary grades to make sure that the students are prepared. And so it’s one of those cases where we raise the bar and students rise to the occasion, and it starts to really push throughout the building.

The other piece that I would say you really see in a lot of our schools with IB programs is that [students] are focused on global thinking. That’s something that all of us want our children to be thinking about, but quite frankly, it’s not happening in every single school. In our IB schools, the kids talk about not only their coursework and the content, but they talk about their place in the world, which I think is one of the unique features of the IB curriculum.

Chalkbeat: This is an interesting moment for IB within CPS because just as you’ve introduced the idea that a child can study IB from pre-K through the Diploma Program, the mayor — an IB champion — announces he’s leaving office. How can a parent because sure that IB will still be available 10 years down the road when their child is ready for the Diploma Program?

Emanuel: Two things. One, parents want it. Principals, teachers want it. We have basically 10 to 11 percent of the kids in CPS in IB. That’s a built-in constituency. Look, somebody else will have their own interests, et cetera, but I don’t believe they’re going to walk back from this because you have a built-in constituency of principals, teachers and parents who want this.

You’re going to have a fight on your hands. There’s plenty of fights to go around when you’re mayor, and you’ve got to pick the ones you want. This is not one I would recommend because I know the parents that are invested in this — and the teachers and the principals. There’d be holy hell to pay if you try to mess with it. Yeah. That’s the cleanest way I could say. And I think I know something about politics.

Jackson: I wholeheartedly agree with and support this approach. As long as I’m there, I’m going to continue to push for expansion and make sure this vision around these IB cluster neighborhoods comes to fruition.

I really do think if you look at the maps that we put out a couple of weeks ago and where we have added programs under Mayor Emanuel’s tenure, you can really see not only the expansion of programs, but really equity in distribution. We have prioritized some of our neighborhoods that needed this programmatic investment and the schools are better off as a result of this.