Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Lobato case Wednesday did their best to spotlight what Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia doesn’t know about education in Colorado during two bouts of cross-examination lasting nearly two hours.
Garcia, the Hickenlooper’s lead person on education issues, was the first witness to testify for the defense in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, now in its fourth week before Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport.
The plaintiffs’ central claim in the case is that the state’s system of paying for schools doesn’t meet the constitutional requirements for a “thorough and uniform” system of schools.
The state’s defense is centered on the assertion that funding alone doesn’t ensure improved educational achievement by students.
Here’s what Garcia had to say on key issues:
Adequate funding: “Personally I would like to see more resources available for all levels of education,” Garcia said, stressing the need to “couple those resources with the right policies.” Asked if he’s sympathetic to the plaintiffs’ concerns, Garcia said, “I am.”
Thorough and uniform: “I believe it means we have an obligation … to provide free educational opportunities, quality opportunities to all young people.” Garcia also said, “I believe we have met our minimal constitutional obligation. … I would not go so far to say it is the best system we can provide.”
Who decides: Asked if he believes the executive and legislative branches are better suited to decide education funding than are the courts, Garcia answered, “Yes.” He also said, “I believe this lawsuit is not the best way” to approach the funding problem.
Senior Assistant Attorney General Carey Markel questioned Garcia for about an hour, interrupted by some lawyerly back and forth over whether Garcia should be designated as an expert witness. Plaintiffs’ lawyers David Hinojosa and Kenzo Kawanabe then tag-teamed for almost two hours of cross-examination.
Much of their questioning consisted of detailed questions about funding, achievement statistics, state programs and much more, seemingly designed to show Garcia’s lack of knowledge about various things.
He repeatedly responded with answers like, “I couldn’t say,” “I cannot tell you,” “I don’t recall,” “I can’t give you a complete answer” and “I don’t have any personal knowledge.”
But Garcia, a graduate of Harvard Law School, maintained a Zen-like composure in the face of the lawyers’ flurry of questions.
The lawyers, by contrast, got a little heated at times.
Hinojosa pressed Garcia if budget cuts are forcing school districts “to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
“Is that testimony or a question?” Garcia responded.
Later, when asking Garcia about low Hispanic high school graduation rates, Hinojosa projected pictures of three sisters (their family is a plaintiff) on the courtroom screen and asked, “Which one of these three Lopez girls would you take away” to illustrate the problem.
Markel quickly objected, and Rappaport just as quickly sustained the objection. (The morning was punctuated by numerous objections, most from the plaintiffs’ lawyers.)
Kawanabe moved rapidly through his questions, more than once pausing, asking the court reporter “Can we strike that” and then rephrasing his questions.
Garcia started his career working as a lawyer for a school district and is a former president of Pikes Peak Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo. He also was a co-chair of former Gov. Bill Ritter’s P-20 Education Coordinating Council, whose work led to the landmark Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids.
At the beginning of his testimony Markel asked Garcia about the Hickenlooper administration’s education goals.
While Garcia said the administration is “very focused on K-12 education,” he also said refinement of those goals awaits work by the yet-to-be-convened Education Leadership Council.
Tactics continue with other witnesses
After Garcia and a group of aides left the courtroom, the testimony took a distinctly wonkish turn as former CDE official Rich Wenning took the stand to explain in depth the state’s testing and accountability systems.
Wenning was followed on the witness stand by Jo O’Brien, CDE assistant commissioner for assessment, research and evaluation. Her testimony was similarly detailed, focusing on development of the new state content standards and preparations for the new state testing system.
As with Garcia, plaintiffs’ lawyers were on the attack, and more time was spent on cross-examination that on questions from state lawyers. Wenning remained cool, but O’Brien had a little more trouble dealing with the relentless questioning from lawyer Kyle Velte.
With both witnesses, plaintiffs’ lawyers managed to bring up a lot of information about problems with state achievement scores, graduation rates and achievement gaps.
And they managed to get both Wenning and O’Brien to acknowledge that education needs more financial resources in some areas.
Velte, for instance, asked O’Brien if the state finance system will be adjusted to accommodate the cost of a new state testing system.
“We’re speaking with legislators and the governor’s office and the state board to find an economical way [to pay for it], but we don’t have that final decision yet,” O’Brien said.
Highlights of the day
TONE: During the previous three and a half weeks of presenting their case, plaintiffs’ lawyers were respectful and methodical in dealing with their own expert witnesses, and solicitous and kind when handling nervous parent witnesses.
They turned into bulldogs with the state’s witnesses on cross-examination Wednesday, pushing harder than state lawyers did with most plaintiffs’ witnesses.
QUOTE: “Colorado has gone as far as it can go teaching the same way” as in the past. – Jo O’Brien
MANEUVERING: Plaintiffs’ lawyers proved themselves as nit-picky on cross as the state’s lawyers were earlier, questioning both Garcia’s and Wenning’s backgrounds and qualifications.
COLOR: A lot of documents get shown on a screen from an overhead projector, most of them looking smudged, out of focus or too small to read. Velte took a more high-tech approach, projecting exhibits from her iPad.
SEEN: Attorney General John Suthers made his first appearance in the courtroom since the trial began. (EdNews has missed a couple of days, but this was the first time we spotted him.) He said in the audience section, listening and watching intently as Velte cross-examined O’Brien.
DOCUMENTS: Wenning and O’Brien got lots of questions about the performance of Colorado students on ACT tests. Read the ACT report on that.
If you’re on Twitter and want to see our blow-by-blow Tweets on Garcia’s testimony, go here.
UPCOMING: Hoover institution scholar Eric Hanushek, original scheduled to testify Friday, will take the witness stand on Thursday. A leading skeptic about the relationship between increased spending and achievement, Hanushek is the state’s most prominent expert witness.