School funding method illegal, judge says
A Denver District Court judge dropped a bombshell ruling late Friday, saying the way the state funds public schools is not thorough and uniform as called for in the Colorado Constitution.
The ruling, which is more than 180 pages long, concluded education funding has not kept pace with state laws that mandate a standards-based education system.
Kathleen Gebhardt, one of the attorneys who represent scores of parents and school districts in the lawsuit, Lobato v. Colorado, said the ruling is a wake-up call to the Colorado Legislature.
Even though the ruling likely is to be appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court, that doesn’t mean the Legislature can’t act now to increase funding to public schools, she said.
“The Legislature could step up and should step up immediately,” Gebhardt said. “There’s been a declaration that the current system’s unconstitutional, it’s not serving children, and we believe the Legislature needs to step up immediately.”
Plaintiffs in the case, which was filed in 2005, argued that education is underfunded by about $4 billion a year. Currently, the state spends about $3 billion a year on public schools.
The problem, says Sen. Mary Hodge, vice chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee, is there is no money to put into education.
Because of the recent recession, the Legislature cut K–12 spending by more than $200 million this year, and Gov. John Hickenlooper is proposing maintaining those cuts and trimming it even more, by nearly $90 million in next year’s budget.
Hodge, a Democrat from Brighton, said fully funding education as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit ask would outstrip nearly all funding for everything else the state funds except Medicaid, which is mandated by the federal government.
She said that means there would be no money for transportation, prisons, higher education or human services programs.
“Oh, my god. I’m blown away. This is not funny,” she said. “Other things have to be funded. It makes me think we’re going to have to do some serious thinking about how we do education, and all the rest of the budget.”
Gebhardt said plaintiffs of the case don’t expect the Legislature to fix the funding issue overnight. She said her clients would be happy to see lawmakers begin to make improvements by committing to increase funding incrementally over several years.
Gebhardt said arguments that the state’s tax policies, including the Legislature’s inability to raise taxes because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, are poor excuses for not funding education.
“Excuses no more, is what I say,” Gebhardt said. “We’ve used those excuses for years, and it’s time to not have excuses for doing what we need to be doing under the Constitution.”
In the ruling, Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport orders the Legislature “to design, enact, fund and implement a system of public school finance,” but she is not specific about how much it should dedicate to K–12 spending or when it should start to increase that spending.
Greg Mikolai, president of the School District 51 Board of Education, said he is not expecting a dramatic increase in funding anytime soon.
“The whole thing with Lobato all along is that it was an effort to address the funding formula of the state and the inequities of this funding formula,” he said. “Being in District 51 and seeing that we are so far below the state average in terms of the formula, I can only agree with the efforts of the case. It brings to light the inequities in the formula, but the problem is there’s not going to be an immediate benefit to any school district.”
Mikolai hopes, however, the Legislature does what the lawsuit calls for and revamps how it funds schools.
The judge said the Legislature approved new laws to better prepare K–12 students to enter college or go into the work force. To achieve that, the state mandated performance standards for public schools designed to improve education for children. At the same time, however, the Legislature has not increased funding to pay for those mandates.
“There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded,” Rappaport said in her ruling. “This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system.”
Mike Saccone, spokesman for Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, said the ruling will have huge repercussions, and it was not unexpected.
He said Suthers’ office will consult with Hickenlooper to determine how to proceed, and it expects an appeal will be filed with the high court.
“The attorney general is disappointed in the ruling, but not surprised,” Saccone said. “It clearly was very tempting for the district court judge to wade into what is a public policy debate.”
If the case is appealed, it could take up to a year before it is decided.