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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.