Colorado Court Says Case Can Move Forward

Last Updated: November 29, 2009

This article appeared in the November 2009 Rural Policy Matters.
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In a positive step for rural and poor students in the state, the Colorado Supreme Court has ruled that the Lobato school finance adequacy case can be heard in a district court. The case, originally filed in 2005, charged that the current school finance system is unconstitutional under the state’s “thorough and efficient” standard.
The Supreme Court decision overturns two lower court decisions that would have ended the challenge. Those decisions called the question of school funding a nonjusticiable political question and cited Amendment 23, a Colorado statute that requires that school funding be increased each year in at least the amount of the inflation rate, as evidence that funding was sufficient.
The high court rejected both of these grounds. Further, the Supreme Court noted its essential role in determining the proper level of education funding as a check on the otherwise unlimited legislature. It also noted that Amendment 23 does not set any quality standards on the overall level of education funding and therefore is not a method for ensuring constitutionality.
Colorado’s funding system is complicated by the state’s TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) law, which requires spending increases to be approved by voters.
The state’s education system is bracing for funding cuts of as much as 6% cut in Governor Bill Ritter’s proposed budget. Many local tax questions were rejected on Election Day earlier this month.
Lobato plaintiff attorneys, among them Rural Trust Board Member Kathleen Gebhardt, have called on the legislature to remedy the funding system prior to a trial. Named plaintiff Anthony Lobato and other parents and districts are largely from the rural San Luis Valley, and contend that that schools are underfunded and that the system is arbitrary in how it allocates money, notably for students with disabilities, students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, students who are members of ethnic and racial minority groups, and students who are not English speakers.
Colorado is noted for its low levels of funding as well as for a failure to provide for capital construction, resulting in decaying and in many cases dangerous facilities in plaintiff districts.
The trial date is expected to be set from twelve to eighteen months from the state high court ruling.
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