Lawsuit contests school funding

The way Colorado funds public schools is unconstitutional, or so a group that is suing the state hopes to prove in a lawsuit that goes to trial Monday.

Filed on behalf of numerous parents whose children attend public schools in the state, the suit argues the Colorado Legislature’s method of funding schools violates the state Constitution’s promise to provide “a thorough and uniform system of public schools.”

That case, filed in Denver District Court, is expected to last at least five weeks.

“The public school finance system fails to provide sufficient resources and to allocate resources in a manner rationally determined to meet the actual costs of providing for the educational needs and rights of under-served student populations,” attorneys for the plaintiff say in the suit, known as Lobato v. Colorado.

Not so, say lawyers with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, which is defending the state.

“Not only has the state more than doubled its investment in public education since 1994, it now picks up the lion’s share of the total cost of public schools,” state attorneys wrote in the defendant’s trial brief filed last week. “Over just the last two decades, the local and state shares of the cost of public schools has flipped, from nearly 60 percent local funding in 1987–88 to nearly 65 percent state funding in 2011–12.”

Currently, the state spends about $3.2 billion on public schools, which accounts for nearly 46 percent of the state’s total general fund.

Plaintiffs argue that amount is at least $3 billion short, but defendants argue if they win, the percentage of the state’s budget devoted to K–12 spending would jump to nearly 90 percent, leaving it no room to fund other programs.

The case was filed in 2005 and immediately was dismissed by the district court on the premise it was up to the Legislature, not the courts, to determine education funding. That ruling was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals, but in 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed those opinions, saying the courts do play a role in how the Legislature funds programs.


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