Kathleen Gebhardt is a Boulder attorney and executive director of the nonprofit Children's Voices. But she is best known for her long fight in Lobato v. State of Colorado. The case began in 2005 and ended earlier this year, when the Colorado Supreme Court rejected Gebhardt's arguments that the state was violating its own constitution by underfunding education and doing so in a way that created vast inequalities.
The Lobato case was reminiscent of an earlier one in Gebhardt's career, Giardino v. State of Colorado, which argued that the state, and not just local districts, should contribute to the capital needs of school construction. That case was settled and led to the formation of the Building Excellent Schools Today (BEST) legislation, which provides competitive grants to schools for new buildings or improvements on old ones.
Gebhardt, 56, co-founded Children's Voices in 2005, after almost 20 years in private practice. She serves on many boards and committees related to education and advocates for changes in policies and laws that benefit students. She received her bachelor's degree from Lewis & Clark College and her law degree from University of Denver College of Law. She is a mother to five children; the eldest is a teacher.
Here are excerpts from a recent conversation with her.
Indy: [Lobato vs. State of Colorado] received a lot of national attention. Why do you think that was?
KG: Well, while we focused on the San Luis Valley, our position — and it still is my position — is that every school in the state is underfunded. But obviously, it's on a scale. The ones in the San Luis Valley are some of the most dramatically underfunded. But you couldn't find a school in Colorado that isn't underfunded, at least a public school that's not receiving significant amounts of money, like some of the charter schools do, from outside private sources.
And I think that a lot of attention was placed on our case in part because education is so important to everybody.
Indy: Tell me about your arguments.
KG: I think what we focused on a lot — in addition to what I just told you about, which was the overall systemic failure — we focused on special populations of kids ...
In the San Luis Valley, for example, there is not a single speech-language pathologist in the whole valley. So how do you provide those services to those kids? And I think it's a state obligation to serve those kids.
These numbers, they could have changed in the last couple months, but the last I checked there was like, one occupational therapist. [Editor's note: The San Luis Valley Board of Cooperative Services (BOCES), which distributes shared resources over the region, says there are currently four speech pathologists, two speech-language assistants, and one occupational therapist who works through an online program. It's clearly still not enough, as San Luis BOCES jobs are posted in those fields.] And that's not just the San Luis Valley, that's true when you sort of go out of the I-25, I-70 corridor, that you find a significant lack of services for kids with needs. And the answer can't be "Move to Denver," right? ...
Indy: Why do you think the Supreme Court didn't side with your arguments?
KG: That will be a mystery that I will never understand, I have to say. They didn't look at the facts. Because I think if they had looked at the facts, they couldn't have come up with the conclusion that they did.
Indy: There was some talk that this would have been devastating for the state had the Supreme Court agreed with you, because a huge portion of the state budget would have had to go toward school funding. And the governor would have struggled to get any tax passed to make up for that.
KG: This is a better investment than almost anything else as a society you can make. So while the numbers may have appeared a bit daunting, if you really look at the social costs of an inadequate education, society comes out so much farther ahead. You can't think about your pocketbook in terms of this year when you're looking at that kind of analysis.
Indy: The ability of some school districts to raise bonds and mill levies and the inability of others creates a lot of inequality. Would it be better if schools were funded solely by the state?
KG: No, I think the state needs to provide a floor, but it needs to be a sustainable, adequate floor. What you want also is for it to not be so tightly regulated or controlled that people can't ask local voters for a little extra money to do ... new programs. To try to figure out, in these days — when we have technology and blended learning and all these things coming at us in education — what's working.
Indy: Ideally, what should be done to address inequality?
KG: Well, I think a couple things need to be done. One, I think the state actually needs to do an analysis of what the costs are of the unfunded mandates [new laws and standards that school districts must accommodate without state funding] that they've passed out. And in Amendment 66, they didn't do that; they kind of did a back-of-the-napkin sketch of what they thought those deficits were.
And then I think we need ... a five-year plan for how we're going to pull ourselves out of this kind of spiral that I see ourselves in.
Indy: Does that happen without a tax?
KG: Probably not.