Lobato v. Colorado: Supreme Court rules school funding levels are constitutional

As we've reported, a lawsuit known as Lobato v. Colorado (it's named for Center High grad Taylor Lobato) shook up the educational establishment when, in December 2011, a Denver District judge agreed with plaintiffs that school funding in the state is inadequate.

The majority of the Colorado Supreme Court doesn't agree. Four of the six participating jurists reversed the previous judgment, thereby declaring that the state's education policy passes constitutional muster. See the ruling and more below.

The Supreme Court didn't deliver its decision until today, but Fox31 discovered that the ruling had been posted early -- and it wasn't a slam dunk. The vote was 4-2, with justices Nancy Rice, Allison Eid, Brian Boatright and Nathan Coats opting to reverse, while Chief Justice Michael Bender and Justice Gregory Hobbes dissented. Justice Monica Marquez didn't participate because she'd previously worked on the case when she was a deputy to Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, who argued on behalf of the state.

Here's how The Lobato Case website describes the rationale for the original lawsuit:

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.

After the December 2011 ruling, AG Suthers's office assembled a reply (see it below) that called for reversal. Here's a telling introductory passage:

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.

According to Suthers spokeswoman Carolyn Tyler, the AG's response focused on three main issues -- "Whether the trial proved Plaintiffs present a political question foreclosing further judicial review," "Whether the trial court's misapprehension of the rational basis test requires reversal," and "Whether it is irrational for the state to require local districts to share the cost of public education." Continue for more about today's ruling in Lobato v. Colorado, including documents and a video. In the end, Suthers's assertions resonated with the majority. Yet the concluding summary is hardly a ringing endorsement of education in the state. Rather, the text suggests that problems should be addressed in another venue:

We have held that "courts must avoid making decisions that are intrinsically legislative. It is not up to the court to make policy or to weigh policy...." While the trial court's detailed findings of fact demonstrate that the current public school financing system might not be ideal policy, this Court's task is not to determine "'whether a better financing system could be devised, but rather to determine whether the system passes constitutional muster...."

Our holding today that the current public school financing system complies with the Education and Local Control Clauses of the Colorado Constitution satisfies this Court's duty "to say what the law is..." without unduly infringing upon the policy-making power of the General Assembly. It thereby affords the General Assembly an opportunity to reform Colorado's education policy, including the public school financing system, consistent with this opinion.

Predictably, Suthers lauds the decision. His statement reads:

"The Attorney General's Office is pleased that, after a long and circuitous route through the courts, the Colorado Supreme Court has finally recognized that the state's education funding system satisfies constitutional standards. The court's ruling confirms that the Lobato case has been a distraction from the task at hand -- improving our education system through meaningful, effective and efficient change.

"To be sure our education system is not perfect. The proper bodies to fix this complex policy issue, however, are the general assembly, governor, state and local school boards, teachers, parents, students and the people of Colorado, not lawyers and judges. This case definitively resolves where the responsibility lies and is a victory for Coloradoans everywhere. I am pleased that the debate on the adequacy of school funding will now return to the political branches and the people where it belongs."

The contrast between these words and the ones provided to Fox31 by Children's Voices executive director Kathleen Gebhardt, the lawyer representing the plaintiffs, could not be sharper. It reads:

"This ruling is a devastating blow to the children of Colorado. 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. 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."

Look below to see a March 2013 video of Gebhardt and Taylor Lobato, followed by the latest ruling and AG office's 2012 filing.

Lobato v. Colorado Ruling

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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