A Denver judge’s ruling in the Lobato school funding case represents a sweeping legal victory – at least at the trial court level – for the parents and school districts that brought the case.

Lobato trial site
Site of Lobato trial in Denver City and County Building

In fact, District Judge Sheila Rappaport’s 189-page decision, issued late Friday afternoon, incorporates word-for-word much of a proposed ruling filed by the plaintiffs in late October.

It’s an established legal practice for lawyers to file documents called “proposed conclusions of law and findings of fact” in many complex civil lawsuits. Lawyers for the attorney general’s office filed their own 90-page findings-and-conclusions document, which could have formed the basis of a ruling in favor of the state, had the judge chosen that course.

Rappaport’s ruling also included small parts of the document filed by lawyers for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, who represented a separate group of plaintiffs but whose claims were basically the same as those of the main group.

“It tracks it very closely,” lead plaintiffs’ lawyer Kathleen Gebhardt said of how the judge’s ruling compares to Gebhardt’s proposed document.

The Rappaport ruling even included plaintiffs’ language that was critical of defense witnesses, such as:

• “Dr. Hanushek’s analysis that there is not much relationship in Colorado between spending and achievement contradicts testimony and documentary evidence from dozens of well-respected educators in the State, defies logic, and is statistically flawed.” (That referred to Eric Hanushek, a Hoover Institution economist who was a central expert witness for the state.)

• “Some of the State’s witnesses hold extreme views on education and school funding that are inconsistent with the Colorado Constitution and/or state reform legislation.” (That referred to Republican former Senate President John Andrews, who also testified for the defense.)

The Lobato case generated tens of thousands of pages of documents, including exhibits, expert-generated studies, witness depositions, state agency documents and reports and even news articles. The trial started at the beginning of August and stretched until the Friday before Labor Day. (Get links to many case documents here, including daily transcripts from the trial.)

The proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law filed by each party essentially laid out their summaries of all that evidence and the conclusions they believed the evidence led to, providing the judge a choice of rulings without having to create one from scratch.

Inside the ruling

District Judge Sheila Rappaport
Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport

Rappaport’s ruling is big enough that it has a table of contents, but a chunk of the document is basically legal boilerplate and for-the-record material – including agreed-to facts, such as names of and information about the plaintiffs.

The bulk of the ruling – stretching for 160 pages – consists of summaries of witness testimony (cross referenced to pages of trial transcripts) and was taken word-for-word from the plaintiffs’ proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.

The main topics covered in those summaries include the meaning of a thorough and uniform education system, the school finance system, the relationship between funding and a thorough and uniform system, the impacts of underfunding of education, the relationship of funding and educational quality, the effect of funding on education quality, Colorado student achievement, impact on special student populations, school construction and the impact on individual plaintiff school districts

The ruling also includes much of the plaintiffs’ take on the testimony of defense witnesses, including all the critical references.

Rappaport’s decision reaches these key conclusions:

• “The Court therefore concludes that the entire system of public school finance … is not rationally related to the mandate of the Education Clause.”

• “The public school finance system falls short of providing sufficient funding to meet the mandate of the Education Clause and standards-based education.”

• “Due to lack of access to adequate financial resources, the Plaintiff School Districts and the school districts where Individual Plaintiffs reside (collectively, the “School Districts”) are unable to provide the educational programs, services, instructional materials, equipment, technology, and capital facilities necessary to assure all children an education that meets the mandates of the Education Clause and standards-based education.”

• “The Court therefore concludes that Colorado public school children are not receiving the thorough and uniform educational opportunities mandate by the Education Clause.”

(Although the ruling doesn’t put it in these terms, it essentially says the legislature needs to pay for the education reforms it enacts, something it has not done for such major legislation as the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the 2010 educator effectiveness act. In a sense, the Lobato ruling is the ultimate rebuke to the “unfunded mandates” that school district leaders constantly complain about.)

What’s next

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt

Gebhardt said at a Saturday news conference in Colorado Springs that the plaintiffs hope the state won’t appeal, which would create a big assignment for the 2012 legislature in starting to work on a new school finance system.

But it’s expected that the state will appeal. Gebhardt estimates it would take the Colorado Supreme Court a year to decide the case, based what’s happened with past appeals in major state public policy cases.

Beyond an eventual court decision is the question of whether the state can afford to increase education spending and continue funding other state programs. Most observers expect that would require going to the voters for a tax increase, as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights requires.

That raises the yet-bigger question of what happens if the voters say no, as they did in November to a proposed tax increase for K-12 schools and higher education.

For now, Gebhardt says enigmatically, “The voters can’t ignore a court order.”

Text of Rappaport’s order

The first paragraph was taken from the plaintiffs’ proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. The remaining text was added by the judge.

The Court finds that the Colorado public school finance system is unconstitutional.
Evidence establishes that the finance system must be revised to assure that funding is rationally related to the actual costs of providing a thorough and uniform system of public education. It is also apparent that increased funding will be required. These are appropriately legislative and executive functions in the first instance. Thus, the Supreme Court has directed that this Court shall “provide the legislature with an appropriate period of time to change the funding system so as to bring the system in compliance with the Colorado Constitution.” Taking these directions into account, the Court enters Judgment and Orders as follows:

Injunctive relief enters in favor of the Plaintiffs, and all of them, and against the Defendants, and all of them, as follows:

1. Defendants are enjoined from adopting, implementing, administering, or enforcing any and all laws and regulations that fail to establish, maintain, and fund a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state that fulfills the qualitative mandate of the Education Clause and the rights guaranteed to the Plaintiffs thereunder and that is in full compliance with the requirements of the Local Control Clause; including, without limitation the Public School Finance Act of 1994 in its entirety, categorical funding programs, and capital construction funding laws and regulations;

2. Defendants are further enjoined to design, enact, fund, and implement a system of public school finance that provides and assures that adequate, necessary, and sufficient funds are available in a manner rationally related to accomplish the purposes of the Education Clause and the Local Control Clause;

3. The Court hereby stays the enforcement of the injunctive relief set forth herein above in order to provide the State with a reasonable time to create and implement a system of public school finance that meets the mandates of the Education Clause and the Local Control Clause. This stay shall continue in effect until final action by the Colorado Supreme Court upon appeal of the Court’s decision; provided that if appeal is not perfected to the Colorado Supreme Court, this Court shall review the stay upon application of either party submitted no earlier than the conclusion of the 2012 legislative session. While this stay is in place and until further action by the Supreme Court or this Court, the present financing formula and funding may remain in effect.