Colorado Supreme Court Jumps into the Abyss of School Finance

Colorado’s state Supreme Court defied national trends on Monday, handing down a decision in Lobato v. State that thrusts the judiciary into the middle of the state’s educational finance disputes.  As John Dinan shows in “School Finance Litigation: The Third Wave Recedes” in From Schoolhouse to Courthouse, state courts have grown increasingly weary, and wary, of being drawn into these political quagmires.  Lobato was filed in 2005 by parents and school districts, with the support of the usual suspects such as the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, and the Colorado Lawyers Committee.   Colorado’s constitution states that the state legislature shall provide for a thorough and uniform system of education.  The trial and appellate courts had held that the Lobato was not appropriate for judicial resolution, since Colorado’s constitution clearly commits control over the issue to the legislature, and because there are no judicially manageable standards that the courts could apply.

In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court swept aside those concerns, arguing that they should not preclude the plaintiffs from being able to make their case.  The decision, however, did not address the merits of the plaintiffs’ case, which will return to the trial court.   According to the majority, the state only has to show that its funding scheme is rationally related to its constitutional mandate.  One would normally expect this to be an easy hurdle for the state to clear, but the Colorado Supreme Court has a history of unpredictable behavior, as this case itself indicates, so there is certainly no guarantee that the state will win when it’s all over.  As well, in 2004 the Court showed its solicitude for the interests of the educational establishment when it struck down Colorado’s voucher program.

Looking forward, any judicial demands on the state legislature would likely meet with resistance.  The state is already facing severe fiscal constraints, in part because of Amendment 23 of the state constitution, which mandates yearly increases in K-12 spending.  Assuming the state’s budget woes continue, the idea that K-12 isn’t getting an adequate share of state revenues will likely be met with some consternation.

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