CO School Funding Declared Constitutional in Landmark High Court Ruling

Taylor Lobato of Center, CO, one of the lead plaintiffs in State v. Lobato, talks with Center School District Superintendent George Welsh Tuesday. [Photo: CPR/JBrundin]

By CPR Education Reporter Jenny Brundin

Colorado lawmakers will not have to come up with billions more dollars for the state’s public education system after all. On Tuesday, the Colorado Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling in the landmark “Lobato Case” and declared that the state’s school funding model is, in fact, constitutional.

The case began eight years ago, when San Luis Valley ranchers Anthony and Denise Lobato sued the state on behalf of their daughters. The eldest, Taylor, had attended a high school fair in Boulder and realized she wasn’t getting the same education as kids elsewhere. Her schools had no high level courses. Buildings leaked. Technology was outdated.

Lobato is now a student at the University of Denver. She put on a brave face when she talked to reporters after the decision came down, even though she’d been weeping just before she stepped up to the podium.

“It makes me sad, it makes me upset, I’m mad,” Lobato said. “This is important, and the door was slammed in the face of all of the children of Colorado.”

21 school districts eventually joined her suit. The plaintiffs argued the state distributes money to schools in an “irrational and arbitrary” way, and they said that violates the state constitution.

“Kids are going to school with limited books, no AP classes, the roofs are falling in,” Lobato told reporters, “all you have to do is talk to students, talk to teachers, talk to parents, and they can tell you.”

Plaintiffs also said it was illegal for lawmakers to impose higher standards, new tests, and new teacher evaluations on schools, with no money attached. A lower court agreed with their arguments, but not the Supreme Court. Its 4-2 decision says the current education funding system is “comprehensive,” “consistent across the state” and constitutional. Plaintiffs complain the ruling suggests the constitution sets the bar pretty low.

“The constitution only requires three months of school,” said Kathleen Gephardt, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. “The Supreme Court seemed to support the fact that if children go to school for three months as under the constitution with very minimal funding that somehow that meets the constitutional standard. I think Coloradans want more for their children.”

Observers say similar cases in other parts of the country have ended with each side getting parts of what they wanted. Michael Griffith, a consultant for the Education Commission of the States, was surprised Colorado’s ruling was so one-sided.

“They kind of came up with, ‘well our decision basically is, if you’re supplying an education and it meets … this low minimum we’ve set, then the state is fine,’” said Griffith.

If the court had ruled for the plaintiffs, lawmakers might have had to find between $2 billion and $4 billion more each year to put into public schools. Governor John Hickenlooper says he’s glad that didn’t happen.

“What Lobato imagined was a much more robust funding for our state education system,” the governor told Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters. “That’s not something that the general voter is fully engaged with now.”

Hickenlooper said he does think schools need more money.

“Clearly a lot of what that testimony in the Lobato case demonstrated – dilapidated buildings, outdated materials - it’s going to need some more resources to really set right,” he said.

Those resources could come as part of a major school finance overhaul that the governor just signed into law last week. The measure asks voters to approve a billion-dollar tax hike for schools this November. The bill’s sponsor, State Senator Mike Johnston, says the Lobato decision makes that referendum even more important.

“Now that the Supreme Court is not going to be a viable remedy,” Johnston said, “it means all the more urgency in us building a world class education system with the support of the voters at the ballot.”

He acknowledges it’s not as much as the Lobato plaintiffs wanted, but it’s a start.

Attorney General John Suthers, whose office defended the state against the Lobato suit, said in a statement that the education system is not perfect, but that the job of fixing it lies with the legislature, governor, school boards, teachers and parents. The billion-dollar ballot measure may be the next step in that process.

[Photo: CPR/JBrundin]