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State responds to Lobato plaintiffs

School funding isn’t within the judiciary’s power and the state’s school finance system is in fact constitutional, the attorney general’s office argued Friday in a brief filed with the Colorado Supreme Court.

The 38-page filing is the last in a series of key appeal documents sent to the court, starting with the state’s appeal on July 18. The plaintiffs responded with their own brief on Sept. 26. The next major step in the case is expected to be oral arguments before the high court sometime in the next few months.

Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled for the plaintiffs in December 2011, holding that the state’s school finance system doesn’t meet the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” public school system.

She accepted the plaintiffs’ argument, made during a five-week trial in late summer last year, that the legislature essentially has defined thorough and uniform through the education laws it has passed, primarily the various reform laws of recent years. The plaintiffs argue that the finance system doesn’t provide enough money to fulfill those requirements or to equalize disparities between districts.

But another key issue in the case is whether the courts constitutionally can intervene in school finance or if the governor and the legislature have sole responsibility for K-12 funding.

The first version of the Lobato lawsuit, filed in 2005, was thrown out by two lower courts on the grounds that the issue wasn’t of judicial concern.

The Colorado Supreme Court revived the case in late 2009, ruling that it could go to trial and that the courts had a role in reviewing the constitutional question of funding adequacy.

In its appeal filing, the plaintiffs argued that the 2009 high court ruling settled that question but the state’s filing Friday disputes that.

“The General Assembly alone must determine, through the political process, what means to employ in establishing and maintaining a thorough and uniform school system,” the brief states. The state argues that the court’s 2009 ruling doesn’t mean the supreme court has to affirm the specifics of Rappaport’s decision.

The brief also attacks the plaintiffs’ argument that the finance system isn’t thorough and uniform because districts can’t afford to meet reform mandates.

“The state requires accreditation, not absolute achievement. … The state’s public education system is, in fact, meeting the standards the General Assembly has set. The vast majority of Colorado’s nearly 2,000 schools and 178 districts … meet state requirements and are rated as accredited or accredited with distinction. … If plaintiffs and the trial court are correct that a ‘thorough and uniform’ education equates to current statutory requirements, this Court must conclude that the General Assembly is in fact meeting its constitutional obligation.”

The brief also criticizes Rappaport’s conclusion that adequate levels of school finance can be set without reference to the needs of other state programs and to state revenue limitations.

“There is simply no basis in the Constitution to hold public education is insulated from real-world constraints,” the state’s brief argues.

The case also has drawn a barrage of other briefs from “friends of the court,” outside individuals and groups that support one side or the other. Those filings lay out in exhaustive detail all the key arguments in the case. (See this story for details on the “friends’” briefs and links to those documents.)

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