The Colorado Supreme Court’s reversal of the Lobato school finance lawsuit, which handed a stinging defeat Tuesday to plaintiffs who for eight years sought greater and more equitable education funding, did more than settle a pressing constitutional issue.
It also shifted even more attention to the recently passed Future School Finance Act — a sort of Plan B that will seek financial help for schools from voters rather than the courts.
Although the court voted 4-2 to overturn Lobato and confirm the constitutionality of the current state system, the majority decision also acknowledged that it might not be “optimal.” The ruling comes just weeks after legislators passed Senate Bill 213, spearheaded by Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston, to revamp the state’s school finance formula.
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The bill pumps more money into preschool and kindergarten programs and bolsters funding for at-risk students and English-language learners. It also revises the formula that distributes state money to schools to reflect a district’s ability to pay a local share.
The legislation was, in part, an attempt to get out in front of the Lobato decision — no matter which way it went — and provide a remedy that would adequately and equitably fund schools in the state’s 178 districts.
But it can take effect only if voters pass an estimated $1.1 billion tax increase through a yet-to-be-determined initiative in November.
“I think this is going to add a greater sense of urgency to support the ballot initiative,” said Johnston after digesting the decision. ” 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.”
The 2005 Lobato lawsuit, named for one plaintiff family from the San Luis Valley and later joined by districts across the state, contended that Colorado doesn’t provide a constitutionally mandated “thorough and uniform” system of public education.
A trial court agreed, but the Supreme Court found that the current finance system is, in fact, “rationally related” to the thorough and uniform standard, which it said “is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state.”
But the decision also concluded that such a standard does not demand “absolute equality” in providing schools with resources.
“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,” said the majority opinion, “the statutory public school financing system itself is constitutional.”
Plaintiff attorney Kathleen Gebhardt said the court “hit the fast-forward button to Colorado’s race to the bottom on education.”
“What we’ve seen over the past decades of inaction by the legislature is continued erosion of public education,” she added. “I see that speeding up now.”
The plaintiffs didn’t seek a specific dollar remedy but did point to estimates of the state’s shortfall in financing public education to be about $4 billion, with nearly $18 billion required for facility repairs and upgrades. Gebhardt noted this marks “the end of the line” for the Lobato suit, although she and her clients will have to regroup to determine whether they’ll attempt other action.
The state attorney general’s office argued that a plaintiff victory could have required the state to raise taxes by 50 percent or see K-12 education consume 89 percent of the general fund budget.
Calling the Lobato case a “distraction” from improving the state’s education system, Attorney General John Suthers said that the court’s decision puts the issue back before legislators, school boards and citizens — “not lawyers and judges.”
“This case definitely resolves where the responsibility lies and is a victory for Coloradoans everywhere,” he said in a statement. “I am pleased that the debate on the adequacy of school funding will now return to the political branches and the people where it belongs.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper said the court’s opinion didn’t necessarily say that education funding is sufficient.
“Even after working hard to add additional funding this year … most people would agree that we are underfunding education,” he said. “What the Supreme Court said was this (lawsuit) was not the right way to increase that funding.”
Johnston said his legislation follows the court’s prescription.
“The process of 213 and the ballot has followed the spirit of Lobato,” he said. “And we were trying to be prepared for either outcome.”
With the Lobato reversal, Gebhardt said she felt renewed worry that voters would perceive the court’s ruling as confirmation that Colorado’s school finance system is on solid ground. And that, she added, could influence how they come down on a ballot initiative.
“I’m not a marketing person at all,” she said, “but I could see that people would say that if that is a ruling from the highest court in the land, then everything is fine.”
Stakeholders already are jousting over what kind of mechanism should be proposed to raise the money — an increased flat tax or a tiered income tax system. One of 16 possible initiatives should emerge in the next week or two, and it could well involve some revision to constitutional law.
George Welsh, superintendent of the Center School District where the Lobato family lives, said he supports the legislation but will have to see which ballot initiative advances before making that call.
“It’s not perfect,” Welsh said, “but it’s good — and better than the current finance act in the way it distributes dollars.”
Ultimately, he sees it as more than just a step in the right direction.
“Now,” he said, “it’s the only game in town.”
Staff writer Zahira Torres contributed to this story.
Key moments in Lobato vs. Colorado
June 2005: Lawsuit filed claiming Colorado’s underfunding of schools violates constitutional mandate for a “thorough and uniform” system of public education.
March 2006: Case thrown out of district court.
January 2008: Appeals court upholds district court’s decision.
October 2009: In a 4-3 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the case could move to trial.
December 2011: Plaintiffs won a district court ruling that finds the state’s school funding system unconstitutional. The state appealed.
March 2013: Oral arguments were heard in the Colorado Supreme Court.
May, 28, 2013: Supreme Court overturns district court ruling on a 4-2 vote and finds the state’s school funding system constitutional — effectively ending the case.