Bruce Baker, a national school finance expert, testified Friday that Colorado’s school finance system is especially regressive for districts with high numbers of poor children and English language learners because it doesn’t compensate for the higher costs of teaching such students.
He’s one of the national witnesses being used by the plaintiffs to buttress their claim that the state’s school finance system violates the “thorough and uniform” education requirements of the state constitution.
The plaintiffs paid Baker $15,000 to produce a chart-laden 87-page report titled “Colorado School Finance,” which formed the basis for his two hours and 40 minutes on the witness stand.
Plaintiffs’ lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt walked Baker through his testimony, which was followed by a lively cross-examination during which Baker gave as good as he got from Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Fero.
Baker made these main points in his report and his testimony:
- Colorado’s finance system distributes money inequitably and raises a low amount of revenue relative to the size of the state’s economy.
- Student demographics have changed dramatically in the last two decades, with significantly higher numbers of poor students and English language learners.
- The formula fails to meet needs of those at-risk students.
- There’s a lack of targeted support for high-needs districts, which means a lack of support for at-risk students.
- State achievement gaps have persisted and are related to funding shortfalls.
Baker discussed at length the higher cost of educating at-risk students and said when those costs are taken into account, Colorado districts with large numbers of such students are at a noticeable disadvantage. He also said funding gaps can account for 60 percent of achievement gaps in reading and 46 percent of math achievement gaps.
During the trial’s first week lawyers from the attorney general’s office have done their best on cross-examination to raise questions about witness qualifications and to look for contradictions in their testimony.
Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Fero took that to a new level Friday, quizzing Baker on everything from his training in economics and statistics to multiple fine points in his testimony.
Cross-examination questions often are crafted to box witnesses into simple “yes” or “no” answers. Baker was having none of that, tossing back long answers at Fero and responding with comments like “I wouldn’t agree to that statement as phrased,” “That depends on what you mean by proven” and “That’s taken somewhat out of context.”
Fero saved his biggest zinger for last, questioning Baker about whether he thought a certain research method was “speculative.”
Baker disagreed with that word, and Fero produced a page from a book Baker helped write a few years ago in which “speculative” was used to describe that method.
“The plaintiffs paid you $15,000 [to write the report] … lawyers did not pay you to write your textbook,” Fero said.
“Lawyers did not pay me to write my textbook,” Baker agreed.
“That’s all the questions I have,” Fero said.
Fero and others on the state team are not playing to a jury; they have an audience of one – Judge Rappaport.
Earlier Friday, Carol Eaton, Jefferson County director of assessment, testified about the costs and work involved in meeting new state content standards and tests. Daniel Maas, chief information officer for the Littleton schools, testified about the technology demands created by new standards, tests and teaching methods, saying, “We are all in a state of decay” as far as school technology goes.
Jeffco Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, former Sheridan Superintendent Michael Poore, former Cherry Creek Superintendent Monte Moses and other administrators testified earlier in the week. Moses said, “There isn’t enough money to do the basics of reform in a good way.”
Highlights of the day:
TONE: Baker’s testimony took on the air of a graduate school seminar as he alternately pointed to items on a screen with a laser pointer and got out of his chair to draw graphs on a large pad of paper.
QUOTE: “We do not have the resources” to implement the new educator evaluation law, said Jeffco’s Eaton. “We hope the state will give us some resources.”
MANEUVERING: Once again, cross-examination by the defense.
COLOR: Baker and Fero chatted amiably if briefly in the corridor as everyone left the courtroom after Rappaport let everyone out early.
SEEN: There was a very sparse crowd for such key testimony.
UPCOMING: Monday witnesses are expected to include Justin Silverstein of the Denver consulting firm Augenblick, Palaich and Associates. APA did a big cost study for the plaintiffs, and Silverstein is another central expert witness.
Also expected to take the stand is Gerald Keefe, superintendent of the tiny Kit Carson district. The district is known for taking an independent course, opting out of some federal grants and winning state waivers from parts of the educator effectiveness law.