Lobato v. Colorado

Education is of paramount importance to the State of Colorado. The Governor, Board of Education and Commissioner of Education work every day to provide all Colorado children equal access to thorough and uniform educational opportunities. Colorado is a national leader in education reform efforts and provides substantial financial support to its public school system. As the traditional base of local financial support for public schools has eroded, the state has taken on an increasingly larger share – now nearly two-thirds of the total funding for K-12 education.

Notwithstanding Colorado’s commitment to public education, the plaintiffs, a group of individuals and school districts from across the state, assert that Colorado’s alleged underfunding of the public schools violates Colorado’s constitutional provisions addressing the “thorough and uniform” system of public education and granting local school boards “control of instruction” in their districts. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund intervened on behalf of additional parents and students and made similar claims of underfunding.

Plaintiffs argue that K-12 funding is underfunded by $3 billion. According to the Joint Budget Committee Appropriations Report 2010-11, K-12 in Colorado receives 45.6% of the general fund, i.e., $3.2 billion of a $6.97 billion general fund. Plaintiffs also argue the state must provide additional capital funding of up to $17 billion. If Plaintiffs were to win, to meet this obligation, the state would either have to raise taxes by at least 50 percent or have to devote 89 percent of the general fund budget to K-12 funding, crowding out things such as Medicaid, unemployment assistance, transportation, public safety (including the State Patrol, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and our prison system) and Higher Education, to name just a few.

This case could alter the relationship between the people of Colorado and their government for decades to come. One of Plaintiffs’ main arguments is that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (“TABOR”) must give way to the education clause so that taxes could be raised and revenues increased to meet the needs of the education clause without a vote of the people.

Shortly after the case was filed in 2005, the state asked the courts to dismiss the case on the grounds that decisions regarding education funding should be made by the General Assembly and the People. Both the district court and court of appeals agreed with the state, dismissing the case because it was non-justiciable (or not a proper case for resolution by the courts). In October 2009, the Colorado Supreme Court reversed those decisions and ruled that the courts do indeed have a role to play in how the state funds K-12 education. It held that individual parents and students and school districts can challenge Colorado’s school finance system in the courts.

On December 9, 2011 the District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and held that the state’s school finance system is unconstitutional because it is inadequate and not rationally related to the constitutional mandate of a thorough and uniform system of free public education. The plaintiffs’ action for declaratory and injunctive relief was stayed until final action by the Colorado Supreme Court. The state is currently exploring its options regarding appealing the District Court’s ruling.

The following are the key pleadings and court decisions in Lobato v. Colorado listed in chronological order:

Education

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