First Person

Lobato case: Whose constitution is it, anyway?

Editor’s note: The following piece was written by Ken DeLay, executive director of the Colorado Association of  School Boards.

Students do not show up at the schoolhouse door equally well equipped for success.  We know, for example, that young children who grow up in homes where adults regularly read and speak to them by age three have heard 30 million more words and have a vocabulary more than twice as large as children who grow up without those experiences.

There are also differences in intellect and a host of other factors that affect student learning.  Colorado’s public schools have been rightly challenged to accept every one of these children, no matter how well equipped to learn, and to launch them into adulthood 12 years later fully prepared for college or career.

Leaving aside the legal analysis and the political jousting, the plaintiffs in the just-concluded Lobato trial are seeking only recognition of the fact that it costs more to educate the child with a vocabulary less than half that of his peers and a life experience of hearing more than 30 million fewer spoken words, and an order requiring the state to create a plan for funding those costs.  The plaintiffs’ claims are rooted in an old idea.  We get what we pay for.

Of course we cannot leave aside legal analysis or political jousting.  The Colorado Supreme Court has already ruled in the Lobato case that the courts, not the legislature, will decide what the state constitution means when it says that the legislature must create and maintain a “thorough and uniform” system of public schools in Colorado.  That the courts have “the province and the duty” to say what the law means is also an old idea, one first articulated by the great U.S. Supreme Court Justice Marshall almost 210 years ago.

In its 2009 Lobato opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court also rejected the state’s arguments that other constitutional restrictions on the legislature’s taxing power, such as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR), prohibit the courts from requiring additional funding for schools under the “Thorough and Uniform Clause.”  The mere possibility of a remedy beyond the means of the current budget, said the court, is not a reason for the courts to shirk their duty to say what the constitution means.

The trial court judge strictly followed the law of this case as set down by the Colorado Supreme Court.  And here began the political jousting:  the court is stepping improperly on the toes of the legislature by defining what “thorough and uniform” means; the court will overstep its authority if it orders the legislature to find resources which the legislature does not now have; and the oft-repeated contention that there is no connection between additional dollars spent and a quality education.

That last contention is, of course, an issue of fact in the case.  There was much testimony from experts and others on both sides of this issue, and the trial court must now decide which side had the better of the evidence.  That evidence, not political argument, will decide this issue.

The argument that it is the legislature’s, not the court’s, role to define “thorough and uniform” is puzzling.  It has been settled law for more than 200 years that courts, not legislatures, decide what a constitution means.  Moreover, in this case, both the Supreme Court and the plaintiffs have relied heavily on legislative requirements already in law that define the level of education Colorado schools must deliver.  The plaintiffs are only asking the legislature to fund requirements it has already imposed on school districts.

The claim that the state’s budget is insufficient to pay additional money for public education is an especially troubling and disingenuous argument.  It is disingenuous because the plaintiffs do not seek an order directing the state to pay any amount of money to public education.  The plaintiffs seek merely a determination that the current funding system is unconstitutional and an order to the legislature to build a constitutional system.  Further, if it is necessary for the legislature to find additional funds to build that system, the constitution already provides a way for the legislature to seek those funds.

The argument is also troubling because it suggests that where the restrictions contained in TABOR create an obstacle to other constitutional rights or obligations, those other rights or obligations must give way to TABOR.  Boiled down to its essence, the state’s argument is that TABOR has effectively repealed the “Thorough and Uniform Clause,” a provision that has been in our constitution since it was first adopted in the 1870s.  The Colorado Supreme Court properly rejected this argument.

In its 2009 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court held that the trial court must determine whether there is a rational connection between the funding system for public schools in Colorado and the mandates placed on our schools to educate every child.  This seems altogether an unremarkable proposition.

If our public schools can give the boys and girls of this state a quality education that prepares them for life and career after graduation, it will have given them the one ticket for success which we know always works.

We as a state can and should do no less for our children.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.