For more information, also see: Children’s Voices website
For more than two decades, Colorado’s school finance system has fallen increasingly behind the investment levels of other states, behind the level of funding necessary to maintain district services from year to year and behind the level necessary to ensure that all children meet state and federal standards and receive a quality education. At a time when the state has the fastest-growing child poverty rate in the country, Colorado children have paid the price.
In 2008-09, before the recession began, Colorado spent $1,809 less per pupil than the national average. In the last two years, as the recession and other factors have taken their toll on state revenues, the situation has grown worse. Current spending on school finance is an estimated $774 million below the minimal increase required by Amendment 23.
The resulting impact on schools and students has been detrimental and systemic. For instance:
- Numerous districts in Colorado are unable to provide students with the coursework necessary to enter four-year colleges.
- Although research indicates that students—especially those at-risk for academic failure—benefit from more and longer days of instruction and enrichment. Colorado districts are shrinking instruction time because of ongoing budget constraints. A higher percent of districts in Colorado are operating on a four-day week than in any other state.
- The State of Colorado ranks at or near the bottom of states when it comes to funding special education. As a result, everyone loses. Educational opportunities for the general student population are reduced to fund special education programs and resources for special needs children remain below levels needed to meet their needs and federal mandates.
- Children throughout Colorado are attending schools that are crumbling, unsafe, unhealthy and technologically and educationally deficient. A recent independent statewide survey uncovered a $17.9 billion backlog in school capital needs.
- There is no rational connection between what Colorado spends on public schools and what the state expects the schools to produce.
Colorado’s Changing Student Population
Since 2001, Colorado’s student population has grown nearly 12 percent (742,145 students in 2001, 843, 316 in 2010). In addition, the number of students eligible for free- and reduced- lunch has grown from 28 percent of students to 40 percent of students (2010). The number of students who are English language learners has grown from 71,000 to 117,000. The number of students who are homeless more than doubled from 7,319 in 2004 to 15,834 in 2009. All these students require additional support and resources.
The Legal Principle
As a requirement to enter statehood, the framers of the Colorado State Constitution included a mandate that the state legislature “establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.” In 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that this is an enforceable mandate, and that courts have the authority to review Colorado’s school finance system to determine whether it meets this constitutional standard. This ruling parallels those in dozens of other states, where similar suits have been filed. This is consistent with longstanding Colorado precedent.
Additionally, Denver District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport has ruled that the state may not use TABOR (the Taxpayer Bill of Rights) as an excuse. She ruled: “The Court finds that while fiscal pressure may explain why students’ rights have been violated, it has no bearing on the issue whether students’ rights have been violated. That is, Defendants cannot, as a legal matter, excuse the legislature’s failure to comply with the mandates of the Education Clause by pointing to seemingly difficult decisions. The evidence of non-education appropriations and the effects of TABOR are distinct from students or the actual quality of the education they receive. The quality of the public school system provided to students must stand or fall on its own. The quality of that system cannot logically be saved or enhanced by the legislature’s desire to spend money on other programs or tax credits.”
What is “thorough and uniform”?
Over the past several years, Colorado has adopted new standards, assessments and accountability systems. Those reforms and mandates can be correlated to the programs, course offerings, and interventions necessary for every student to meet established state and federal achievement goals. In turn, these components can be quantified into hard costs—creating a connection between finance systems and academic outcomes.
These legislative decisions and reforms have largely established what constitutes a “thorough and uniform” education in Colorado. The Lobato suit asks the court to determine whether Colorado’s current school finance system is up to the constitutional task of “maintaining” a thorough and uniform level of education to all children. The plaintiffs will demonstrate in court that there is no rational connection between the expectations established by the legislature and Colorado’s current school finance system. Reform without resources is unconstitutional. Colorado is stepping up to the reforms, now it is time to step up to the Colorado Constitution.
Who are the parties?
The plaintiffs are parents and school districts from across the state of Colorado, representing a diversity of communities—urban, suburban and rural; affluent to low-income; various demographic and cultural backgrounds; special needs, gifted & talented, at-risk, and English Language Learners.
The defendants are the State of Colorado, the Colorado State Board of Education, the Commissioner of Education and Gov. John Hickenlooper.
What are the plaintiffs asking for?
Plaintiffs are seeking a declaration by the court that the current system of school finance established and maintained by the state legislature is not thorough and uniform and, as a result, it violates the Colorado Constitution and the substantive rights of Colorado students.
What aren’t the plaintiffs asking for?
The plaintiffs are not asking the court to rewrite the state’s school finance laws. Rather, the plaintiffs are seeking a judicial declaration about whether the current system meets constitutional requirements. The legislature would then have the opportunity to respond to the constitutional deficiency. There is no TABOR-related claim in the lawsuit.
What is the goal?
The Supreme Court has recognized that the legislature has an enforceable duty to “establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of free public schools.” The legislature has established the level of education such a system would deliver to every child, but the legislature has never made an effort to connect its system of reforms and standards with its system of finance. This lawsuit asks the court to require the legislature to do so in order to provide Colorado children with the quality education that is their right.