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Colorado Supreme Court Rejects Lobato Argument

On Tuesday, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated ruling in the historically, politically important case of Lobato vs. State of Colorado Board of Education, deciding that the state’s K-12 education funding mechanism is indeed constitutional, thus reversing a lower trial court’s decision that it was not.

The Colorado Chamber joined 13 other business organizations in filing an amici curiae brief opposing the ruling in December 2011 by Denver District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport that the K-12 education funding mechanism is unconstitutional.

Oral arguments were heard by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

The majority opinion was written by Justice Nancy Rice, who was joined by Justices Brain Boatright, Nathan Coats and Allison Eid.

Two justices dissented: Chief Justice Michael Bender and Justice Gregory Hobbs. Justice Monica Marquez, who had worked on Colorado’s defense of the Lobato lawsuit when she was employed in the Office of State Attorney General John Suthers, recused herself.

Here’s the summary of the Court’s ruling:

The public school financing system enacted by the General Assembly complies with the Colorado Constitution. It is rationally related to the constitutional mandate that the General Assembly provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public education. . . . It also affords local school As such, the trial court erred when it declared the public school financing system unconstitutional. We accordingly reverse.

The Court’s ruling defined the thorough-and-uniform standard as “of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state.” The standard does not mandate “absolute equality in the state’s provision of educational services, supplies or expenditures,” the Court said.

“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,” the Court’s majority said.

The Colorado Attorney General’s Office had said that a ruling in favor of Lobato could have mandated an increase of 50 percent in taxes. Otherwise, financing Lobato could have eaten up 89 percent of the state’s General Fund budget. The plaintiffs’ camp argued that Colorado shortchanges education to the tune of $4 billion and that another $18 billion is needed to improve and fix up schools. The plaintiffs were mainly parents of children in the San Luis Valley, who were joined by a number of school districts from across Colorado.

The Colorado Chamber President Chuck Berry commented: “It‘s refreshing to see a majority of the Colorado Supreme Court apply basic constitutional principles in deciding this important case. We have a system founded on the separation of powers, and it’s simply wrong for the courts to be setting the levels of taxation and the amounts appropriated in government budgets. Those are matters properly left to the elected legislators and, under Colorado’s Constitution, to the voters of our state.”

Here’s the reaction of elected state leaders to the Lobato ruling by the state Supreme Court:

Gov. John Hickenlooper, quoted by EdNews Colorado

“We are complying to the requirements in the constitution. It doesn’t necessarily say that we have sufficient funding in education right now, and even after working hard to add additional funding this year to the construction of school buildings and the state education fund, we — clearly, I think most people would agree that we are underfunded in education. But I think what the Supreme Court said was that this was not the right way to increase that funding.”

Colorado Attorney General John Suthers

“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.”

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs), quoted in a news release from the Senate Minority Office

“The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision on the Lobato lawsuit is important to all of us; it affirms the constitutional authority of an elected legislative body to represent the people of this state. This is such a core tenet of our Constitution that I am surprised the court’s decision was not supported unanimously by the justices. The legislature is given the power to create a state budget for good reason – the people’s money needs to be protected from any group who would use the court system to bypass the Constitution.”

Senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver), lead sponsor of SB-213, quoted in The Denver Post.

“I think this is going to add a greater sense of urgency to support the ballot initiative. Not winning at the Supreme Court means our greatest chance to provide adequate funding for schools is to do it at the ballot. It’s our greatest and, now, perhaps our only chance.”

From now until the November elections, public school finance will be the major issue for political debate. SB-213, sponsored by Senator Michael Johnston (D-Denver) and signed into aw by Governor John Hickenlooper, will require voter approval to increase taxes by some $1.1 billion to implement the measure’s provisions to modify the public school finance formula and system. See the bill’s sixth and final fiscal note for more details.

Proponents of SB-213 have filed a number of ballot proposals to increase taxes and are now assessing political support for the various measures. Presumably, the advocates will settle on one measure and then gather the necessary signatures to put it on the November 5th ballot.

For news media coverage of the Court’s Lobato decision, read:

Lobato reversal shifts quest for education funding to Colorado voters,” by Kevin Simpson, The Denver Post, May 29th

What Lobato lawsuit did for Colorado schools,” editorial, The Denver Post, May 29th

Colorado Supreme Court ruling a victory for self-government,” column, Vincent Carroll, The Denver Post, May 29th

High court reverses Lobato ruling,” by Todd Engdahl, EdNews Colorado, May 28th

Court reverses Lobato, finds state school finding constitutional,” by Kevin Simpson, The Denver Post, May 28th