by Julie Pelegrin
On May 23, 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its ruling in the case of State v. Lobato (Lobato II), finding that the Public School Finance Act of 1994 is constitutional. The opinion holds that the statutory school funding system is rationally related to the General Assembly’s constitutional duty to establish and maintain a “thorough and uniform” statewide system of free public education. But the opinion actually does much more. The opinion defines the phrase “thorough and uniform”, implies that the constitution does not require a minimum level of funding for education, and further clarifies school districts’ local control authority. Most importantly, Lobato II demonstrates that a majority of the Court strongly supports the separation of powers and will not interfere with the General Assembly’s plenary authority to set education policy.
Definition of “Thorough and Uniform”
First, the Supreme Court specifically tells us what the phrase “thorough and uniform” means. While the courts of Colorado have interpreted this phrase in several cases, they have never actually defined it. To reach its conclusion in Lobato II, the Court applies the plain English definitions of both words and concludes that the phrase “describes a free public school system that is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state.”
Rational Relationship between Funding System and Thorough and Uniform Requirement
Next, the Supreme Court confirms that the constitutional requirement to maintain a thorough and uniform system of public education does not imply or include a required minimum level of funding. In its earlier opinion in this case, Lobato I, the Court said the issue at trial was “whether the state’s public school financing system is rationally related to the constitutional mandate that the General Assembly provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education.” In Lobato II, the Court sharpens the issue, holding that “the public school finance system is rationally related to the ‘thorough and uniform’ mandate of the education clause if it funds a public school system that is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state.”
To apply this standard, the Supreme Court reviews the school finance formula, the state and local resources for funding public education, the funding for programs outside of the formula, and the districts’ ability to obtain bonded indebtedness and concludes that the statutes that fund schools do, indeed, fund a public education system that is of a quality marked by completeness, that is comprehensive, and that is consistent across the state. So the school funding system is rationally related to a thorough and uniform system of public education and is constitutional. The Court does not discuss or consider the amount of funding appropriated.
Finally, the Supreme Court reviews the plaintiffs’ claim that the school funding system violates school districts’ constitutionally mandated control of instruction in their schools. The Court reconfirms its earlier holding from the Lujan case that a dual-funded system – one that uses state and district resources to fund education – supports local control so long as the district can control how it spends its locally raised moneys. The plaintiffs argued that the General Assembly has imposed many statutory requirements on districts and has failed to provide enough state moneys to enable the districts to meet these requirements. As a result, districts really don’t control their own locally raised money; they must use most, if not all, of their money to meet these statutory requirements. But the Court disagrees. The school funding system does not direct or control how districts must spend any moneys they receive, whether from the state or from local taxes, so the school funding system does not violate districts’ power of local control.
Confirmation of the Plenary Authority of the General Assembly
But, arguably, the most significant aspect of the Lobato II opinion is the high level of deference that the Supreme Court pays to the General Assembly’s authority to establish education and funding policy. The Supreme Court starts with the presumption that the school funding system is constitutional and that, to prevail, the plaintiffs must prove it to be unconstitutional beyond a reasonable doubt. The Court also states that its role is not to decide whether a better education funding system can be devised but whether the existing system meets constitutional requirements.
The Supreme Court avoids any discussion that could be viewed as interpreting or evaluating the existing education policies. For example, the Court repeatedly states that the statewide system of public education is “of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state,” but it never specifically analyzes the public education system or explains how or why the system is complete, comprehensive, and consistent. Similarly, the Court never discusses the concept of funding adequacy. The Court addresses the amount of funding for education only by stating that, “while we sympathize with the plaintiffs and recognize that the public school financing system might not provide an optimal amount of money to the public schools, the statutory public school financing system itself is constitutional.”
The Supreme Court concludes that it has met its duty to say what the law is without infringing on the General Assembly’s policy-making power. And the Court underlines the General Assembly’s plenary authority over education policy by stating that the Lobato II opinion “affords the General Assembly an opportunity to reform Colorado’s education policy, including the public school financing system, consistent with this opinion.”