The revised school-funding lawsuit filed Monday argues that the state constitutional requirement for “a thorough and uniform system of free public schools” creates a “substantive” right to which “procedural amendments” such as TABOR “must yield.”

The new complaint in Lobato v. State, made possible by an October 2009 Colorado Supreme Court ruling that revived the original 2005 case, raises the issue of whether Colorado spends enough on its schools at a time when the legislature is considering historic cuts in K-12 spending.

The case also is expected to set into motion years of judicial and perhaps legislative debate on some big constitutional and policy questions:

  • What educational rights does the state constitution confer?
  • What is “adequate” funding of the schools?
  • Is it up to the courts or legislature to determine that?
  • Does the state constitution’s original language about a “thorough and uniform” system of schools – and any rights that language confers on citizens – override such later amendments as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights and the Gallagher Amendment, which regulates property taxes?

The plaintiffs’ claim about TABOR, deep in the 38-page complaint, reads: “The ability of the state and school districts to provide and maintain sufficient funding and other resources and to implement a system of public school finance that meets the substantive right to a quality public education established by the Education Clause is fundamentally impaired by the taxing and spending conditions imposed by TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment. These procedural amendments to the constitution must yield to the substantive rights guaranteed by the Education Clause.”

The Lobato case started in 2005 when a group of parents from eight school districts across the state and 14 school districts in the San Luis Valley sued the state, claiming that Colorado’s school finance system violates the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” public education system.

In March 2006 Denver District Judge Michael Martinez ruled against the plaintiffs, concluding the current system meets the requirements of Amendment 23, isn’t subject to court review and that the school districts didn’t have standing to sue.

A Colorado Court of Appeals panel upheld the district court decision in January 2008.

On Oct. 19, 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to revive the lawsuit, sending it back to the trial court.

The updated suit adds new plaintiffs – the Jefferson County and Colorado Springs 11 districts plus a group of metro-area parents. The parents and their children include residents of the Adams 14, Boulder Valley, Denver, Pueblo County and Woodlin schools districts, plus the San Luis Valley districts.

There now are more than 30 individuals and 17 school districts on the suit.

The suit also cites more recent facts about the condition of school funding in Colorado.

As was the case when the lawsuit originally was filed, the core of the plaintiffs’ argument is that Colorado public schools are so under-funded that students are denied an adequate education, in violation of that state constitutional mandate of a “thorough and uniform” system. The suit also claims the current system violates the constitutional local control rights of schools boards.

“The state has persistently failed to fund public education in a rational and sufficient manner and at the levels required to meet constitutional and statutory standards of quality,” the complaint reads.

“The Colorado public school finance system particularly fails to provide sufficient funding to provide a constitutionally adequate, quality education for the under-served student populations in the state.”

The suit repeated uses the words “irrational and inadequate” and also has some critical things to say about state education reform efforts in recent years.

“Education reform legislation has established instructional and other substantive goals and mandates without analyzing the cost to attain those goals or providing the means to fund the accomplishment of those mandates. The General Assembly has enacted education reform legislation without corresponding reform to the system of school finance.”

The suit seeks a court declaration that the current system isn’t rationally related to the constitutional education mandate, doesn’t provide enough funding to fulfill that mandate and violates the constitutional rights of school districts. It asks injunctions directing the state to fix the system and establishing continuing court monitoring of any such efforts.

At the time of the high court’s ruling last autumn, two of the lawyers involved in the case, Alexander Halpern and Kathleen Gebhardt, called on “the legislature to act immediately to remedy the problem, thereby avoiding a costly and lengthy trial.”

The legislature, faced with a continued decline in state revenues, already has cut just over 2 percent from 2009-10 state school support and is expected to reduce state aid by 6 percent or more in 2010-11.

Lawmakers and the Ritter administration are taking a narrow view of Amendment 23, arguing that its provision only apply to base school funding, which is about 75 percent of total state aid.

School districts were prepared for the 2009-10 cuts, given that they had to hold a total of $110 million in reserve until the legislature decided whether or not to release it.

Administrations and school boards around the state now are working in earnest to cut their 2010-11 budgets, and some boards already have taken the legal steps necessary to lay off teachers before the new budget year starts on July 1.

Several education and other advocacy groups were part of the original case as “friends of the court,” including the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Association of School Boards, the Colorado Association of School Executives, the Colorado League of Charter Schools, the Colorado Lawyers Committee, the Colorado Center on Law and Policy, Great Education Colorado and Padres Unidos. They joined the case in support of the plaintiffs.

The school boards group, CASB, has been particularly active on the issue, including helping raise money to pay legal bills.

While “adequacy” might seem to be a concept whose definition is in the mind of the beholder, some people have taken a stab at estimating its cost. According to an estimate the Department of Education gave to a legislative study panel last summer, funding an “ideal” K-12 education system could cost nearly $9 billion a year, compared to the $6.1 billion currently spent.

The lawsuit also cited a 2008 Colorado School Finance Project study that estimated a similar, $2.9 billion-a-year gap in adequate state funding.

The next step in the process will be filing of an answer by lawyers representing the state.

Adequacy has been a focus of activity and court review in several other states in recent years. Here’s information on recent court action around the country, as reported by the National Access Network, a project of Teachers College at Columbia University.

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