Judge: State education finance system unconstitutional

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Denver District Court Judge Sheila A. Rappaport ordered Dec. 9 that the state of Colorado reform its Public School Finance Act to make sure public education meets the state constitution’s guarantee that the state will provide a “thorough and uniform” system of public schools. The order was issued as the conclusion of Lobato v. State of Colorado, which was first filed in 2005.

Background

On June 23, 2005, parents Anthony and Denise Lobato, along with other parents and a number of school districts across the state, filed a complaint in Denver District Court challenging the constitutionality of the Colorado system of public school finance.

They alleged that the Colorado Constitution, as established in 1876, mandates that the “general assembly shall ... provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of 6 and 21 years, may be educated gratuitously.”

They also alleged that “A system of public school finance that fails to provide sufficient financial resources to the school districts to permit local boards of education to provide the services, instructional programs, materials, and facilities necessary to meet the substantive mandate of the Education Clause violates the (Constitution’s) Local Control Clause.”

After a motion to dismiss took four years to make it through the Colorado Supreme Court, the case went into a five-week trial earlier this year, wrapping up in late July.

The Plaintiff's Case

Using a definition essentially provided by two decades of state legislation that the “thorough and uniform mandate can be met through a standards-based education system,” testimony from school districts and case law, the plaintiffs first defined “thorough and uniform” and then set about showing that state financing for the creation of a standards-based education system isn’t rational and doesn’t align with the state’s goals.

The State's Case

The state introduced testimony from members of the State Board of Education, former state representatives and senators and others to show that it is serious about education reform.

Judge Rappaport didn’t buy it. She states in her order: “The Court notes that much of the State’s testimony actually bolstered Plaintiffs’ arguments in this case, and certain other contrary testimony lacked factual support.”

As examples, she writes about testimony provided by Robert Schaffer who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1997-2003. Rappaport states: “Mr. Schaffer believes that if there were only $1 million allocated to the school finance system (an average of approximately $1.25 per pupil), there would be a thorough and uniform system as long as the million dollars was distributed equitably through the school finance formula. ...”

The judge also states that some of the state’s witnesses hold extreme views on education and school funding that “are inconsistent with the Colorado Constitution and/or state reform legislation.”

By way of example, she quotes former Sen. John Andrews, who, she said, “reveres the educational system we had in this country in the 1700s because there were few government operated schools. He fails to mention that our schools did not educate whole segments of the population, including women and people of color, at that time.”

Finally, calling the current state school finance system “irrational” and its funding levels “inadequate,” Rappaport ordered the General Assembly to design and implement “a system of public school finance that provides and assures that adequate, necessary, and sufficient funds are available in a manner rationally related to accomplish the purposes of the Education Clause and the Local Control Clause.”

Noting the current state of the state budget and the fact that her ruling is likely to be appealed, she also entered a stay in order “to provide the State with a reasonable time to create and implement a system of public school finance that meets the mandates of the Education Clause and the Local 183 Control Clause.”

If the state doesn’t appeal her ruling, she will revisit the stay no sooner than the end of the 2012 legislative session.

Many of the documents filed in the case, including Rappaport’s final order, are available at www.coloradoattorneygeneral.gov.