Why Lobato matters

(Boston) Winston Churchill famously noted that few things in life are quite as exhilarating as being shot at without result.  In that vein many Coloradoans felt a similar adrenaline rush upon hearing that the State Supreme Court had narrowly overturned the grotesque trial verdict in the Lobato education finance case.


Of first importance is that in overturning the egregiously misguided decision of trial judge Shelia Rappaport the Court’s 4-2 majority struck down an opinion that assaulted the very essence of representative government in general and the separation of powers in particular.

The immensely high stakes in this case were nowhere better described than in Vincent Carroll’s brilliant Denver Post column of May 29th.

Beyond the rescue of our democratic form of government and saving taxpayers from a bill that could have approached four billion dollars, it is worth reflecting on what the Lobato decision means for education reform.

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that on the basis of having served as Colorado’s State Commissioner of Education for a decade I was asked and agreed to provide some modest assistance to the Attorney-General’s office in preparing the state’s  Lobato defense.

Before we spend too much time in celebratory dances around the May Pole, we should remember that while Lobato is a splendid victory it is but a single battle in a long war in which- sad to say- our people and our children have lost more often than they have won.

Long ago- most notably in a famous Kansas City case- The Education Establishment learned that the U.S. constitution offered little leverage in jacking up education spending but that state constitutions were a target rich environment that showed great promise.

Accordingly over several decades following a script crafted and refined by national education organizations- mainly unions- lawsuits were filed in twenty-seven states.  Colorado already lost one such suit more than a decade ago (Giardino) albeit for a mere $500 million dollars.

Basically the idea is that if you can’t win at the ballot box, or the state legislature, then go to court where you can prevail if to cite the delightful lyric from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Iolanthe you can “throw sand in a juryman’s eyes or take advantage of a judge who’s not overly wise”.

Over time these lawsuits in the aggregate have cost taxpayers billions of dollars while doing nothing to improve American education which in the same time frame has sunk ever lower in all international education comparisons.

How can that be you ask? Surely all that money must have done some good.  Consider the following:

As measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) the United States has shown “no significant progress” in either reading or Math scores since 1971.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called America’s deplorable international rankings “ a massive wake-up call” when on December 7, 2010 the DOE released results that showed the U.S.A. 17th in Reading, 23rd in science, and 31st  in Math.

Well, you say, if things are that bad, maybe we do need to “invest” more money as the Educational Establishment endlessly demands.

Consider the following:

  1.  Education spending per pupil in this country, adjusted for inflation has increased more than 100 % since 1983.
  2. Between 1955 and 2007 student-staff ratios fell from 27-1 to 15-1.
  3. The number of American teachers jumped 61% between 1970 and 2008, even though student population increased by only 8%.
  4. Teacher salaries, adjusted for inflation, have increased 45% since 1960
  5. In the same period teacher/administrator health and pension benefits have risen to a level approximately double that of the average American.
  6. Among the fourteen industrial nations most comparable to the USA only Switzerland and Norway outspend the United States.

Amazingly, despite this appalling record of runaway costs and educational dysfunction the mantra of “we must invest more in education” maintains political traction at all levels of government.

An illustration of this disconnect is the fact that many of the same people who opposed the Lobato lawsuit (eg. Governor Hickenlooper) nonetheless signed off on a ballot initiative that will ask Colorado taxpayers to pony up an extra billion dollars for education.

When the educrats cry “It’s the money, stupid”, the proper response should be “no, it’s how you use the money, stupid”.  If the USA used the money as our foreign competitors do notably in regard to the recruitment, training, compensation, and retention of teachers plus honest accountability measures we could get their results for less than we are spending now.  Role models abound not just abroad, but here in America in programs like KIPP, Teach for America and the many excellent Catholic and Charter schools.

To do this would involve goring a veritable herd of Education’s Sacred Cows, and few – sadly for our children- seem interested in that task.

 

William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, and the Denver Post.

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