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Rural Colorado Schools Draw State's Attention

Colorado's rural schools have been in the limelight this month after a court ruled the state's education funding system is flawed, and the state education department created a new council to focus on rural schools' needs.

Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled Dec. 9 on the Lobato v. State of Colorado case, which involves 21 mostly rural school districts and parents who are challenging the way the state distributes money to its public schools. Rappaport found the state's education system was "irrational and inadequate" and violates the state's constitution; plaintiffs have estimated the system is underfunded by up to $4 billion, according to an Associated Press article. Rappaport directed lawmakers to create a funding system to fulfill constitutional requirements, and the case likely will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

[UPDATED (2:30 p.m.): Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced today the state will appeal the trial court ruling, saying "the judge's decision provided little practical guidance on how the state should fund a 'thorough and uniform' system of public education." Read the full story here.]

The same day of Rappaport's ruling, the Colorado Department of Education announced the establishment of a new Rural Education Council to oversee, support, research, and advocate for the needs of rural schools. Department officials said it formed the council in response to research, "A Rural Needs Study: Improving CDE Services to Rural School Districts"; the study's chief recommendation was organizing this kind of council to oversee a statewide plan for rural education.

The 17-member council is made up of eight rural superintendents from different regions of the state, as well as local school board members, teachers, and principals. A majority of the state's districts—142 districts, out of 178—are classified as rural, and they enroll 20 percent of the state's 843,316 students, according to a story in The Gazette, in Colorado Springs, Co.

The Rural Needs Study by Phil Fox and David Van Sant that sparked the council highlighted eight problems and numerous potential solutions for rural districts. Those included:
• initiative fatigue (solution: two-year moratorium on new initiatives)
• reporting and data overload (solution: streamline data requests to match rural capacities)
• fear of state consolidation (solution: modify state law to allow voluntary consolidation for certain-sized districts)
• no voice at the Colorado Department of Education (solution: create new position, assistant commissioner for rural districts, to oversee those schools)
• problematic teacher license process (solution: computerize and simplify it)
• improving staff development (solution: expand state's role in staff training)
• challenges of staff recruitment and retention (solution: provide incentives to help rural districts attract and keep good teachers)
• need for inter-district cooperation (solution: lead and encourage districts to do so).

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