Ruling reaffirms voters’ responsibility
The Colorado Supreme Court’s decision Monday to uphold the constitutionality of the state’s school finance system will undoubtedly disappoint many people who had hoped the court would void the system and order the state to spend considerably more money — perhaps as much as $4 billion a year — on K-12 education.
Although The Daily Sentinel has repeatedly argued that more spending on public schools is needed, we see Monday’s Supreme Court decision as important in another respect. It highlights the court’s unwillingness to assume what it views as legislative functions.
Justice Nancy Rice spoke directly to that in her majority opinion in the Lobato case on school finance:
“We have held that ‘courts must avoid making decisions that are intrinsically legislative. It is not up to the court to make policy or weigh policy,’” she wrote.
Rice also noted that evidence presented during a district court trial in the case demonstrated “that current public school financing system might not be ideal policy.” But she added, “This Court’s task is not to determine ‘whether a better financing system could be devised, but rather to determine whether the system passes constitutional muster.’”
The school finance system passes muster because, the court found, it is “rationally related” to a “thorough and uniform” public education system as mandated by the Constitution.
Rice gives considerably more detail on how and why the current school finance system meets the minimum constitutional standard in the 66-page decision. In no way, however, should the court’s decision be interpreted as a statement that the current system is good, or even adequate.
Many observers expected the high court to be more willing to overturn the school finance system in the Lobato case, especially since the Supreme Court had, in 2008, remanded the case to the district court after the case had originally been dismissed. The Supreme Court ruled at the time that the plaintiffs had demonstrated that there was a legitimate question about the constitutionality of the school finance system. The trial court subsequently ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and declared the current school finance system unconstitutional.
The high court’s refusal to claim legislative powers for itself is admirable and reasonable. The state Legislature, local school boards and voters themselves — through measures such as local bond issues or statewide issues such as Amendment 23 — should decide how much money Colorado devotes to its schools, not seven justices.
Coloradans will have another opportunity for such a decision this November, when a measure to increase state income taxes to provide more money for schools is expected to be on the ballot. Because the Supreme Court has found that the current system meets minimum constitutional requirements, it will be up to voters to determine whether to provide a much-needed increase in K-12 funding.