Lobato Plaintiffs and Friends Argue the Trial Court Was Right: The School Finance System Is Unconstitutional

by Julie Pelegrin

On Sept. 26, the plaintiffs and plaintiff-intervenors in Lobato v. State, and 13 other organizations filed briefs with the Colorado Supreme Court in response to the state defendants’ appellate briefs. The plaintiffs’ briefs and the briefs filed by the amicus curiae (“friends of the court”) argued that, for varying reasons, the trial court was correct in finding that the “Public School Finance Act of 1994” (PSFA) does not meet the state constitution’s requirement that the General Assembly establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of public education. For this reason, they argued that the Supreme Court should uphold the trial court’s findings and order. For the Office of Legislative Legal Services’ memorandum describing the trial court’s decision, click here. For our August 9 article summarizing the defendants’ appellate briefs, click here.

In stating their view of the case, the plaintiffs state that the General Assembly described what it considers to be a “thorough and uniform” system of education by enacting legislation that sets statewide standards, requires schools to administer assessments, and holds teachers, principals, schools, and school districts accountable for the degree to which students achieve these standards. The General Assembly enacted the PSFA in 1994, the year after the first standards and assessments legislation passed. However, the General Assembly did not base the amount of funding provided through the PSFA on the cost of educating students to the standards.

Plaintiffs further state that, as additional education reform legislation passed, the General Assembly did not amend the PSFA to take into account the costs of implementing education reform, and the General Assembly actually added a negative factor to the school finance formula in 2010 that reduced funding for schools and school districts. Without adequate funding, schools cannot enable students to achieve standards, the achievement gap increases, the dropout rate remains high, and the need for remediation remains high. Underfunding education has several detrimental effects, including inadequate and unsafe school buildings; the inability to provide curriculum, technology, and textbooks; and the inability to hire and retain qualified teachers.

The plaintiffs present four arguments as to why the Supreme Court should reject the defendants’ arguments and uphold the trial court’s findings and order. First, they argue that the Supreme Court’s earlier decision in this case — Lobato v. State, referred to as “Lobato I” — which held the question of adequate funding to be a justiciable question, is the law of the case, which means it can only be overturned under special circumstances. The plaintiffs argue that none of these circumstances exist, and the Court must follow its earlier ruling. Similarly, the plaintiffs also argue that, under the doctrine of stare decisis, the Supreme Court is bound to follow its earlier decision. Under stare decisis, a court must follow its earlier decision unless the decision was clearly erroneous, or no longer sound due to changing conditions and more good than harm would come from reversing the decision. The plaintiffs argue that neither of these circumstances exist, and the Supreme Court must follow its earlier decision with regard to the justiciability of the question.

Next, the plaintiffs argue that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lobato I was correct — plaintiffs’ claims present a legal question, not a political question, which the Court can decide without engaging in policy making. The Court need only decide whether the level of funding meets the constitutional requirement of a thorough and uniform system of public education. The trial court in its findings and order merely determined that the state violated the substantive right to a thorough and uniform system of education, and, having done so, ordered the state to design and implement a constitutionally adequate school finance system. The trial court did not encroach on the General Assembly’s policy-making authority with its findings and order; the trial court’s decision was based on legal, not political, grounds and therefore should be upheld.

The plaintiffs next argue that the trial court appropriately applied the test established in Lobato I for determining whether the PSFA satisfies the requirement of a thorough and uniform system of education. The test, as laid out by the Supreme Court in Lobato I, was whether the school finance system was rationally related to implementing the thorough and uniform system, as defined by the General Assembly through education reform legislation. The test was not, as argued by the defendants, whether the PSFA was rationally related to any legitimate state purpose. Thus, the other demands of the state budget are irrelevant; the state cannot use the competing demands in the state budget to justify underfunding the constitutional requirement of a thorough and uniform system of education. The defendants’ speculation about the effect of the trial court’s ruling on the rest of the state budget is improper, premature, and unsupported by the record.

Finally, the plaintiffs argue that the trial court’s finding that underfunding education violates districts’ constitutional right to local control of instruction must be upheld. The trial court’s evidentiary record clearly proves that school districts are forced to use all of the money raised at the local level to meet the state-imposed standards for education. The districts are deprived of the ability to use local moneys to implement local education initiatives, thereby violating their ability to exercise local control.

The plaintiff-intervenors made essentially the same arguments in their brief with more emphasis on the effects on English language learners and low-income students and greater emphasis on the capital construction needs of low-wealth districts.

Several organizations filed amici briefs in support of the plaintiffs’ position:

  • The Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives;
  • The Colorado Education Association;
  • The Colorado Boards of Cooperative Educational Services Association, Colorado Rural Schools Caucus, and Rural School and Community Trust;
  • Kim Reorganized School District 88, Lake County School District R-1, and Limon Public Schools District RE-4J;
  • Padres Unidos and Colorado Association for Bilingual Education;
  • Great Education Colorado, Colorado Parent-Teachers Association, and Colorado Association for Gifted and Talented;
  • The Cross-Disability Coalition, the Legal Center for People with Disabilities and Older People, and the Arc of Colorado;
  • The Colorado Center on Law and Policy;
  • The Colorado Women’s Bar Association, Colorado Hispanic Bar Association, Colorado Lawyer’s Committee, and Colorado Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgendered Bar Association;
  • The Bell Policy Center and American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado;
  • The Education Justice at Education Law Center;
  • The Brennan Center for Justice and Professors of Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure; and
  • The Campaign for Educational Equity, Teachers College, Columbia University and the National Education Access Network.

The amici briefs make similar arguments to those raised by the plaintiffs. Several agree that the Supreme Court must follow its earlier decision in Lobato I and that there are no grounds upon which to reverse that decision. The amici also agree that there is no rational relationship between the costs of educating students to achieve postsecondary and workforce readiness and the amount appropriated through the PSFA, and, as a result, public education in Colorado is significantly underfunded. Several amici also argue that this underfunding disproportionately affects low-income students, English language learners, students with disabilities, and gifted and talented students and disproportionately affects property-poor districts. Some of the amici also cite to the rulings in school finance cases from other states as evidence that courts have several times held that a state legislature has failed to meet a constitutional obligation to appropriate moneys for its public school system and have ordered the legislature to increase the state financial support for public education.

The defendants have until November 2 to file a brief in response to the plaintiffs’ appellate brief. After that, the Court will determine whether to allow oral arguments and when those arguments may be scheduled. There is no deadline by which the Supreme Court is required to rule in this case.