Colorado

Lawsuit tackles K-12 negative factor

Education advocacy group says funding mechanism is unconstitutional

By Vic Vela
Posted

A lawsuit alleges that a mechanism that has been used by the state to slash education funding by about $1 billion is unconstitutional — the latest development in an ongoing battle over how K-12 dollars are appropriated.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Denver District Court on June 27, argues that the state's use of the so-called “negative factor” to control education funding violates constitutional language that was put in place by voters through Amendment 23.

The 2000 provision requires that annual education funding increase by the rate of inflation and enrollment growth.

But in 2010, on the heels of a recession, state lawmakers created the negative factor in response to budget realities facing the state. Those who support the use of the negative factor say it's important to fund education at high levels, but that the requirements of Amendment 23 are burdensome and can impact budgets for other areas of state spending.

But the lawsuit claims that had the Legislature not created the negative factor, K-12 funding would have been restored to 1988 levels by now — which was the primary goal of Amendment 23.

“The... negative factor and resulting funding restrictions are causing irreparable harm to students, districts and educational organizations across our state,” the lawsuit reads.

Plaintiffs point out that since the adoption of the negative factor, per-pupil funding has “dramatically” decreased and hasn't come close to the funding levels that voters approved in 2000.

The Legislature did backfill $110 million in education funding this year, in an effort to bring down the negative factor. And lawmakers passed two major school funding measures that allow K-12 financing to grow by nearly $500 million.

The legal team behind the lawsuit includes Kathleen Gebhardt of Children's Voices, an education advocacy group. Gebhardt was the lead attorney in the recent Lobato v. State of Colorado lawsuit that claimed that Colorado was failing to adequately fund or properly disperse funding to school districts in the state.

The Lobato lawsuit ended in 2013, when the state Supreme Court ruled that the state's educational funding system was constitutional.

The plaintiffs consist of school districts that include the Boulder Valley School District and Colorado Springs School District No. 11. Other educational organizations and a group of parents are also listed as plaintiffs.

The state of Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper and Education Commissioner Robert Hammond are named as defendants in the case.

The new lawsuit will be defended by the state Attorney General's Office.