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April 11, 2012

A Colorado trial court has provided a detailed articulation of the importance of preschool education, especially for economically disadvantaged and minority children, and the significant unmet needs for access and quality in the Colorado Preschool Program.

In evaluating the constitutionality of Colorado's school funding system pursuant to the Colorado Supreme Court's 2009 decision in Lobato v. State, the trial court on remand undertook a thorough study of six types of "special student populations," including the early childhood population.

Findings Regarding Benefits of Preschool and Effective Preschool Programs

Relying on the testimony of expert Dr. Stephen Barnett, Professor of Education at Rutgers University and Co--Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), and Lori Bowers, Supervisor of the Colorado Preschool Program at the Colorado Department of Education, the trial court found that "high-quality intensive preschool education increases achievement test scores; decreases special education and grade repetition; increases high school graduation; decreases behavior problems, delinquency, and crime; increases employment ... decreases risky behaviors like smoking and drug use; and has positive impacts on mental health, thereby reducing problems like depression."

The positive effects of high-quality preschool education result in economic benefits that can "far exceed the costs to taxpayers of providing such programs as part of public education."

Focusing on minority children and those living in poverty, the court noted that high-quality preschool education programs have been found to close as much as 70% of the achievement gaps of such children at kindergarten entry and one quarter to one third of the gaps in the long term. High-quality preschool education produces immediate increases in cognitive development scores, markedly enhancing school readiness for these children.

While the positive impacts of preschool are highest for low-income and minority children, the court found that universal preschool is preferable to programs targeted specifically to these groups. "Family income presents a moving target," according to the court, and program effects on lower-income children are larger when children from diverse economic backgrounds are brought together to "learn from each other."

The effectiveness of a given preschool program depends on a number of factors, according to the court, including teacher training, class size and staff to student ratio, and the amount of services provided in terms of hours per day and number of years of preschool offered. Preschool programs are most effective when teachers have at least a four-year college degree and specialized training in early education. Additional supports should also be provided for teachers, and teacher performance should be monitored and responded to with technical assistance if needed. The staff to student ratio in preschool should not exceed one to ten.

Full-day preschool programs are preferable to half-day programs in that parents' work schedules may preclude some lower-income children from attending half-day programs. The longer the duration of preschool, the more positive its long-term gains; two years of preschool is preferable to one year, and continued intervention beyond the preschool years produces further benefits.

Analysis of Colorado's Preschool Program

Although the Colorado General Assembly created the Colorado Preschool Program in recognition of the substantial number of children unprepared to learn in kindergarten and primary grades, expressed an intention to fully fund the program, and identified at least seven risk factors establishing eligibility for 3-, 4- and 5-year-old children, the court found significant unmet need for public preschool services in Colorado. Fewer than half of the four-year-olds and only a "small minority" of the three-year-olds deemed "at-risk" of school failure by virtue of eligibility for free or reduced price lunch were served by Colorado's public preschool program during the years in question.

While the General Assembly identified risk factors other than poverty in creating Colorado's preschool program, the state lacks data on the incidence of these other risk factors, making the total population actually eligible for public preschool unknown and the unmet need possibly higher than estimated.

In contrast with the court's general finding that preschool programs are most effective when teachers have at least a four-year college degree and specialized training in early education, the court found that "Colorado's preschool teachers are not even required to have a two-year degree ... [a] quarter of the teachers had no degree beyond a high school diploma." The court further noted the lack of adequate State oversight of classrooms or teacher support necessary to improve its program. The findings of a State task force were noted by the court; the task force concluded that "low pay, lack of benefits, and inadequate working conditions" would need to be addressed in order to recruit well-qualified individuals to the field of early education in Colorado.

Focusing on the funds expended for Colorado's public preschool program on a per-pupil basis, the court found that even the combined state, local, and federal funds dedicated to this program fell short of the per-pupil amount needed to meet minimum benchmarks for a ten-hour per week program as estimated by NIEER. Based on state spending alone, Colorado ranked 36th out of the 40 states that offer a state preschool program. Moreover, the amount of per-pupil funding in Colorado was not based on any study of the cost to provide an adequate preschool education.

Finally, the court found deficiencies in Colorado's methods of assessing the impact of its preschool program. Seventy-one percent of Colorado's districts used "district advisory council visits" as opposed to more comprehensive methods or rating scales to measure the quality of their preschool programs. In the case of districts using a comprehensive rating scale to rate their programs, some districts received a score so low as to be called "terrifying" by Dr. Barnett.

Court's Analysis and Holding

The Education Clause of the Colorado Constitution mandates that the General Assembly provide for "a thorough and uniform system of free public schools" throughout Colorado.

As explained by the court, beginning in 1993, the Colorado General Assembly began a series of legislative reforms ultimately resulting in a "pervasive system of content standards, assessments, school and school district accreditation and accountability, and teacher effectiveness standards" for Colorado schools. The elements of this "standards-based education system," according to the court, "constitute the current legislative specification of the thorough and uniform system of public education mandated by the Education Clause."

Following the Colorado Supreme Court's 2009 holding in Lobato v. State, the court set out to determine whether Colorado's public school financing system was "rationally related to accomplishing the mandates of the standards-based education system." The court found such a rational relationship lacking, as "no effort has been made" to determine the resources needed to accomplish standards-based education goals or to institute and fund a system that provides the necessary resources.

When Colorado enacted its Public School Finance Act (PFSA), the court explained, the statewide base funding amount was determined "by working backwards from the total funding that [the General Assembly] intended to appropriate," with "no effort to analyze the relationship to the actual costs to provide an education of any particular quality." In blunt language, the court noted that "[t]he PFSA was adopted before the implementation of the standards-based education system. If only for that reason, it cannot possibly relate to funding the costs of that system. ... the PSFA funding levels are now and have since inception been completely disconnected from the real, knowable funding needs of a thorough and uniform system of public education."

The court further found that Colorado's "irrational and inadequate school funding system" violates the Local Control Clause of the Colorado Constitution, which gives local boards of education control of instruction in the public schools of their respective districts. Without adequate funding, school districts are prevented from implementing the mandate of standards-based education at the local level.

Court-Ordered Remedy

Having concluded that "the entire system of public school finance" in Colorado is unconstitutional, the court directs the state to revise the system to assure that "adequate, necessary, and sufficient funds are available in a manner rationally related to accomplish the purposes of the Education Clause and the Local Control Clause." Recognizing the limitations of its own role, the court specifically notes that such revisions "are appropriately legislative and executive functions in the first instance." The decision allows Colorado to keep its current financing system in effect so as to give the State "a reasonable time" to create and implement a system of public school finance that meets Constitutional standards.

It remains to be seen how the Colorado General Assembly will respond to the court order in the area of preschool funding. The trial court decision represents only a starting point for the process of education funding reform in Colorado.

Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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