Colorado Lawsuit Opens

Last Updated: August 25, 2011

This article appeared in the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.

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Plaintiffs in the Lobato school funding case are having their day in a Denver district court this month. The lawsuit, which was filed in 2005, survived two lower court decisions that would have ended the case after plaintiffs convinced the Colorado Supreme Court that their arguments should be heard. Parents representing a diverse population and 21 school districts are claiming that the state is failing to meet its constitutional duty to provide a “thorough and uniform” system of free public schools in the state. Over 100 other school districts in the state support the lawsuit.

Named plaintiff Anthony Lobato and other parents and districts are largely from the rural San Luis Valley. They contend that schools are underfunded and that the finance system is arbitrary in how it allocates money, especially 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. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) intervened in the suit on behalf of additional parents and students and made similar claims of underfunding. MALDEF attorneys are also presenting witnesses and evidence during the trial.

In early decisions on pre-trial motions, the plaintiffs’ attorneys were successful in keeping evidence about non-educational appropriations and limitations related to Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) excluded from the trial. Defense attorneys for the state wanted to show that difficult spending decisions about limited funds were the cause of educational underfunding. However, the court denied this defense, saying the question at hand is whether constitutional rights were violated, not why.

Even before the trial that began on August 1, 2011, Colorado Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper and Republican Attorney General John Suthers had spoken out against the lawsuit, saying that it could bankrupt the state and claiming that plaintiffs are seeking to circumvent legislative authority to fund schools. Hickenlooper and Suthers have also charged plaintiffs with trying to circumvent the state’s TABOR law that gives voters authority over a range of spending matters. Hickenlooper claims he does not oppose additional funding for schools, but opposes the lawsuit. Suthers characterized his comments as a response to plaintiffs’ “well-oiled public relations campaign.”

The trial, which is expected to take five weeks, has already featured a number of plaintiff witnesses. National school finance expert Bruce Baker testified, “States can achieve more adequate funding with more effort and can achieve fairer funding with more equitable state school finance formulas. Colorado chooses to do neither.”

Colorado school leaders testified to the severe underfunding of special education and to the inability of districts to help English Language Learners achieve proficiency because the state provides funding for language learning classes for only two years despite the fact that learning a new language takes four to seven years.

Teachers testified that they provide supplies for their classrooms and snacks for elementary school students who cannot afford to bring their own. Parents testified that their students were offered extra credit for purchasing textbooks to use in class and that systems for ‘checking out’ required texts often left many students unable to access the materials.

Another national expert, Linda Darling-Hammond, testified that Colorado needed greater investment in teachers and teacher supports to ensure better educational outcomes. Colorado is one of the states that recently implemented stringent teacher review mechanisms, but the funding shortages in the state have meant that many of the assistant school administrators assigned responsibility for the additional teacher evaluations have been laid off.

In a separate effort, citizens have gathered enough signatures to put a measure to raise taxes on the ballot. Initiative 25 was initiated by Senator Rollie Heath of Boulder, one of the state legislators who testified on behalf of Lobato plaintiffs this month. Rollie’s stopgap measure would address school funding deficits by rolling back state tax rates to 2000 levels for a 5-year period. The measure would return the sales tax rate to 3% from 2.9% and individual tax rates to 5% from 4.63%. Initiative 25, needed 86,000 voter signatures to be placed on the ballot. Grassroots supporters successfully gathered 142,000 signatures by the August 1 submission deadline.

Read more:

Success on early legal motions:

Response of state leaders to lawsuit:

Local coverage of the trial:

Coverage of Senator Heath’s initiative:

Websites dedicated to detailed coverage of the Lobato case:

Non-profit law firm representing the plaintiffs in the case:

Read more from the August 2011 Rural Policy Matters.