The Buck Stops There: Colorado Supreme Court Rules That Education Reform Depends On General Assembly

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On Tuesday, May 28, the Colorado Supreme Court held in State v. Lobato that the state's public school financing scheme meets the Colorado constitution's requirement for a "thorough and uniform" funding system, thus reversing a district court's finding that the system was unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs, parents and school-aged children, had been fighting an eight-year legal battle with the state of Colorado over what they called "inadequate public education funding." They argued that Colorado currently ranks 49th in the nation in per-pupil spending per $1,000 of personal income, and 45th in the nation for the amount of taxable resources dedicated to public education, and this amounted a violation of the State's obligations under the constitution.

Despite these indisputable numbers, the Court held that the financing system was constitutional because the state's financing methods are a single "multi-faceted statutory approach that applies uniformly to all of the school districts in Colorado." "While we sympathize with the Plaintiffs and recognize that the public school financing system might not provide an optimal amount of money to the public schools, the statutory public school financing system itself is constitutional," said Justice Nancy E. Rice, delivering the Opinion of the Court. "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.'" The Court also noted that it must "avoid making decisions that are intrinsically legislative," and left the door open for the General Assembly to reform Colorado's education policy, including the public school financing system. The high-profile and somewhat controversial case has already prompted the Colorado legislature to enact a proposed funding scheme revision this year, which will appear on the ballot this November.

Though seemingly an issue related strictly to the public education and public policy sectors, the Colorado business community also has a lot riding on how the state decides to fund public education. Not only do Colorado employers hire graduates of the state's education system, but the state uses education as a recruiting tool for luring potential new business to the area.

The Supreme Court's decision is not a judgment on whether the State adequately funds K-12 education. The Court recognized that "courts must avoid making decisions that are intrinsically legislative. It is not up to the Court to make policy or to weigh policy. . . . [The decision] thereby affords the General Assembly an opportunity to reform Colorado's education policy, including the public school financing system, consistent with this opinion." If there is one teaching point that comes out of the Lobato case, it is that any reform of Colorado's tax and education funding systems will need to come from the legislature, not the courts.

For More Information

For more information on this topic, listen to our Inside Law podcast - Colorado Supreme Court Decision on Public School Financing - to hear Sean Gallagher briefly discuss the ruling. If you have additional questions, please contact one of our Public Policy - State and Local attorneys or the author of this article:

 

Topics:  Education Reform, Financing, Public Schools, State Funding

Published In: Constitutional Law Updates, Education Updates, Finance & Banking Updates

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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