John Suthers' Lobato case response: Judges shouldn't make school-funding decisions

Lobato v. Colorado argues that school funding in the state is woefully inadequate -- and in a December decision, a Denver District judge agreed. Colorado responded by appealing the ruling to the state supreme court, and in his official response, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers demands a reversal, maintaining in a document on view below that the matter should be determined by the executive and legislative branches, not the judiciary.

The Lobato Case website describes the rationale for the lawsuit like so:

For more than two decades, Colorado's school finance system has fallen increasingly behind the investment levels of other states, behind the level of funding necessary to maintain district services from year to year and behind the level necessary to ensure that all children meet state and federal standards and receive a quality education. At a time when the state has the fastest-growing child poverty rate in the country, Colorado children have paid the price.

In 2008-09, before the recession began, Colorado spent $1,809 less per pupil than the national average. In the last two years, as the recession and other factors have taken their toll on state revenues, the situation has grown worse. Current spending on school finance is an estimated $774 million below the minimal increase required by Amendment 23.

Suthers's take on the suit doesn't directly address these issues. Instead, it considers whether the courts are the proper venue for the debate. The introduction neatly summarizes his views.

The parties agree on one central principle: public education is an essential function of state government. To this end, Colorado spends nearly half of its seven-billion-dollar general fund on K-12 education -- more than almost all other state services combined. Plaintiffs ask for as much as four billion dollars more. But the trial proved this demand is not fit for judicial resolution and instead must be made to the citizens or their elected representatives. Additionally, in agreeing with Plaintiffs that the reality of competing interests and limited funds could not be considered, the trial court necessarily ruled it was irrational for the legislative and executive branches to set aside tax dollars for any services other than public education. For Plaintiffs to prevail, this Court must ignore the Constitution, abandon deferential review of executive and legislative actions, and collapse the powers of these elected branches into the judiciary. The trial court's order must be reversed.

When asked to elaborate, Suthers spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler says the AG's office prefers to let the response speak for itself. However, she does offer the following mini-list of what the state considers to be key issues and arguments:

I. Whether the trial proved Plaintiffs present a political question foreclosing further judicial review?

Per the brief, the trial proved plaintiffs present a nonjusticiable political question this court can resolve only by violating the separation of powers. Plaintiffs' claims cannot be resolved without collapsing the powers of the legislature and the executive into the judiciary. In leading the trial court to transform statutory policy judgments into enforceable constitutional guarantees, Plaintiffs confirmed they truly ask the judiciary to impose a singular school finance system of their own choosing. In addition, because the trial court declined to hear evidence of the General Assembly's limited budget and other appropriations, the record does not establish an additional four billion dollars even could be allocated to K-12 education. This Court should reverse the trial court's unprecedented intrusion into public policy, refuse to issue what could only be an advisory opinion, and decline further commitment of the judiciary to this case.

II. Whether the trial court's misapprehension of the rational basis test requires reversal.

The trial court's persistent misapprehension of the rational basis test requires reversal. This is a case where deference to legislative policy decisions should be at its apex. Rational basis requires the judiciary to examine all possible grounds that could support a challenged legislative action. The trial court, however, held any school finance system is irrational unless it accomplishes the goals of standards-based education to the exclusion of all other government services. Nothing in the Education Clause suggests the duty to provide a free public education overrides either legislative discretion or the competing demands for limited state revenue. By asking whether Colorado's public school finance system matches the type of education system it believed best, the trial court blinked away the Court's remand order, its precedents, and the Constitution.

III. Whether it is irrational for the state to require local districts to share the cost of public education.

The constitutional guarantee of local control of instruction does not entitle school districts to full state funding. The trial court held the school finance system infringes the Colorado Constitution's guarantee to school districts of "control of instruction," art. IX, § 15, because there is not enough state funding for local implementation of state mandates. (Ct. Order, Dec. 9, at 179-81.) Yet, this rejection of the General Assembly's dual-funded finance system fails as a matter of law. The Constitution expressly allows the General Assembly to require local districts to share the cost of providing a standards-based education. In addition, including local tax dollars increases the effectiveness of local decision-making, thereby rationally furthering the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform school system.

The Colorado Supreme Court will likely take on Lobato in a few months. Here's the complete AG's office filing.

Colorado Attorney General Filing in Lobato Case

More from our Politics archive: "John Suthers calls ruling against health-care legislation a victory for federalism: Read it here."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts