Colo. Supreme Court sides with state, overturns Lobato school funding lawsuit

DENVER — The Colorado Supreme Court has decided against the plaintiffs in Lobato vs. Colorado, a landmark education lawsuit against the state, FOX31 Denver was first to report Monday afternoon.

The sweeping decision declares that Colorado’s current levels of education funding — the state’s per pupil spending level is more than $2,000 below the national average —  are indeed Constitutional.

The 4-2 ruling by the Court, which was officially issued Tuesday morning, was posted to the Court’s official website, where it was fully obtainable by the public, some time on Monday afternoon.

It was subsequently removed from the site.

The decision overturns a December ruling by Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport, who had validated the claims made by the plaintiffs, a group of parents from around the state and school districts from the San Luis Valley, and determined that state education funding levels are falling short of a mandate within the Colorado Constitution to provide every student with a “thorough and uniform” education.

Read the full Lobato ruling here

On page 15 of the 27 page ruling, the Court’s majority writes: “The Court held that the ‘thorough and uniform’ mandate does not  necessitate ‘absolute equality in educational services or expenditures,’ nor does it direct ‘the General Assembly  [to]  establish a central public school  finance  system restricting each school district to equal expenditures per student.”

The majority continues: “The current public school  financing  system  is rationally related to the ‘thorough and uniform’ mandate because it  funds a system of free public schools  that is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state.”

“This ruling is a devastating blow to the children of Colorado,” said Kathy Gebhardt, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement to FOX31 Denver Monday. “Today the Court closed its doors to the children of Colorado. The court has bowed out, so the constitution cannot provide these children with any protection. The Court said that we must now trust our politicians to address the acknowledged and enormous resource needs of children throughout the state.

“It is difficult to imagine how the judges could read the facts found by the trial court below and find that the system meets the constitution’s “thorough and uniform” requirement,” Gebhardt continued. “The trial court found after a five-week trial that Colorado’s school finance system was so inadequate and inequitable that it was not just unconstitutional but unconscionable.

The ruling also says that the state is affording its 178 school districts control over locally-raised funds and therefore over “instruction in public schools.”

The four justice who joined in the majority opinion are: Justices Nancy Rice and Nathan Coats, both considered moderates, and Allison Eid and Brian Boatright, the most conservative members of the Court.

Justice Monica Marquez recused herself from the Lobato case, having served as a deputy attorney general under Attorney General John Suthers and worked on the state’s defense from the lawsuit.

Chief Justice Michael Bender and Justice Gregory Hobbes offered a dissenting opinion, arguing that the Court should affirm Rappaport’s ruling that education funding levels are unconstitutional.

“In my view, a thorough and uniform system of education must include the availability of qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks, access to modern technology, and safe and healthy facilities in which to learn,” Bender writes.

“The record, however, reveals an education system that is fundamentally broken. It is plagued by underfunding and marked by gross funding disparities among districts.”

In March when arguing the case, Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Fero told the Court that the amount of spending on K-12 education should be left to the legislature and voters — and that more money alone is not necessarily the solution to better schools.

He also pointed out that the state’s hands are largely tied by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or “TABOR”, which limits state revenues and requires voter approval of tax hikes, a fact that wasn’t admissible when the case was argued in district court.

Gebhardt told FOX31 Denver Monday that education advocates will continue to fight for additional funding for schools.

“Regardless of what the Court held today, the facts remain — the current system is unconscionable and is doing harm to our children and the future of our state,” Gebhardt said. “The Court delivered a major setback to the cause of public education, but the fight for our children’s future continues. The Courthouse doors may be closed to the children of Colorado, but the Capitol doors are still open.”

With the passage of Senate Bill 213 by the legislature this year, Colorado voters will be deciding this November on whether to approve $1.1 billion in new education funding that will help implement a new funding model that would send additional funds to districts with higher percentages of at-risk or English language learners and fund full-day kindergarten across the state.