Who Is In Charge

State lays out its Lobato appeal

Last year’s decision that found the state school finance system unconstitutional should be overturned because it actually ignores the state constitution and “collapses” legislative and executive roles into the judiciary, Attorney General John Suthers argued in a brief filed with the Colorado Supreme Court late Wednesday afternoon.

Lobato v. State illustrationThe state formally appealed the 2011 district court decision last January, but the brief is the first filing to lay out the state’s arguments in detail.

The supreme court’s ultimate decision could have far-reaching but hard-to-predict impacts on school districts, classrooms, the state budget and the taxes that Colorado citizens and businesses pay.

A ruling against the state could be costly. Studies done for the plaintiffs estimate that “full funding” of Colorado schools could cost $2 billion to $4 billion more a year than the state spends now. A ruling in the state’s favor could leave Colorado schools facing a lean future.

Also Wednesday, a raft of friend-of-the-court briefs were submitted, according to Judicial Department spokesman Rob McCallum. Those include filings by three former governors; the University of Colorado Board of Regents; by a large coalition of business and civic groups led by Colorado Concern; by two associations of agencies that serve the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, and by the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

The first four briefs side with the state; the brief from the charter groups is neutral. (Get more details on the friend-of-the-court briefs.)

The state’s brief, along with most of the amicus briefs, attempts to make the point that the high court needs to consider all state budgetary needs, not just whether K-12 funding is constitutional, in making its eventual decision.

The district court specifically did not consider overall state spending but only the issue of whether the K-12 funding system meets constitutional requirements.

In a statement summarizing his 64-page brief, Suthers said:

“For Plaintiffs to prevail, this Court must ignore the Constitution, abandon deferential review of executive and legislative actions, and collapse the powers of these elected branches into the judiciary.

“The trial proved plaintiffs present a nonjusticiable political question this court can resolve only by violating the separation of powers.” Nonjusticiable is legal jargon meaning a matter that can’t be decided by the courts.

“This Court should reverse the trial court’s unprecedented intrusion into public policy, refuse to issue what could only be an advisory opinion, and decline further commitment of the judiciary to this case.

“Rational basis requires the judiciary to examine all possible grounds that could support a challenged legislative action. The trial court, however, held any school finance system is irrational unless it accomplishes the goals of standards-based education to the exclusion of all other government services.”

Turning to the Denver District Court’s interpretation of the constitution’s education clause, Suthers said, “Nothing in the Education Clause suggests the duty to provide a free public education overrides either legislative discretion or the competing demands for limited state revenue.”

The plaintiffs respond

Kathleen Gebhardt, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, responded in a statement of her own:

“The State’s brief is most notable for what it does not say:

“It does not argue that the State is meeting the needs of all Colorado students;

“It does not – and cannot – dispute the voluminous evidence brought forth at trial about students who do not have access to the technology, textbooks, programs, and/or coursework necessary to meet standards, succeed academically, or attend college;

“It does not even argue that the current system is thorough and uniform.

“Instead, the State contends that it should be excused from meeting its duties to Colorado’s students because to comply with the Constitution might be difficult. It promotes the cynical and mistaken argument that the legislature is powerless to vindicate the rights of K-12 students without defunding higher education and other critical state services. In short, the State seeks to avoid its constitutional responsibilities through excuses and legal technicalities. In fact, the State goes so far as to rehash arguments already settled by the Supreme Court in 2009.”

What’s next

The Lobato plaintiffs have until late next month to file an answer brief. The friend-of-the-court or amicus briefs don’t automatically become part of the case; the court has to decide formally to accept or reject them. Court spokesman Robert McCallum said decisions should be made within 10 days.

After further paperwork, the court is expected to hear oral arguments late this year or early in 2013.

The original Lobato lawsuit was rejected by two courts, but the supreme court voted 4-3 in 2009 that it could go to trial.

Two of the four justices who voted to revive the case, then-Chief Justice Mary Mullarky and Justice Alex Martinez, have since left the court. Their replacements are Justice Brian Boatwright, a former district judge in Jefferson County, and Justice Monica Márquez, a former assistant attorney general. Márquez worked on previous stages of the Lobato case while serving in the attorney general’s office.

It’s up to an individual justice to decide whether to recuse oneself from a case. “I have to wait and see” about the Lobato case, Márquez told The Pueblo Chieftain last year.

A Suthers spokesman told The Denver Post last year that the attorney general’s office expected Márquez to recuse herself.

A 3-3 supreme court tie on the Lobato appeal would have the effect of upholding the district court ruling.

District court decision was sweeping

District Judge Sheila Rappaport
Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport

Following a five-week trial held last summer, Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport ruled in December that the school funding system is unconstitutional for these reasons:

• “The entire system of public school finance … is not rationally related to the mandate of the” state constitution’s education clause, which requires “the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”

• “The public school finance system falls short of providing sufficient funding to meet the mandate of the Education Clause and standards-based education.” By standards-based education, Rappaport was referring to the reform and other education mandates passed by the legislature in recent years.

• Lack of financial resources means 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.”

Rappaport’s ruling pretty much accepted all the plaintiffs’ claims, including that the current finance system is underfunded and allocates money in an “irrational and arbitrary” way; doesn’t provide constitutionally adequate education to disabled, poor and minority students or to English language learners; and doesn’t provide enough funding to meet state requirements for student achievement.

In addition to the parents, students and school districts represented by the non-profit law firm Children’s Voices, a second group of parent plaintiffs is represented by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Case has long history

Lobato timeline
  • July 18, 2012 – State files appeal brief
  • Jan. 23, 2012 – State files notice of appeal
  • Dec. 9, 2011 – District court decision issued
  • Aug.1-Sept. 2, 2011 – Lobato trial held
  • March 1, 2010 – Revised lawsuit filed
  • Oct. 19, 2009 – Supreme court rules trial can proceed
  • Jan. 24, 2008 – Court of Appeals upholds district court decision
  • March 2, 2006 – Lawsuit thrown out in Denver District Court
  • June 23, 2005 – Original lawsuit filed

The Lobato case was filed in 2005, and a different Denver judge and the Colorado Court of Appeals rejected it on the grounds that the issue wasn’t subject to judicial review.

The suit was revived in October 2009 by the supreme court, which laid out these guidelines for the trial court:

“To be successful, they [plaintiffs] must prove that the state’s current public school financing system is not rationally related to the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to provide a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education … The trial court must give substantial deference to the legislature’s fiscal and policy judgments. It may appropriately rely on the legislature’s own pronouncements concerning the meaning of a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of education. If the trial court finds the current system of public finance irrational and thus unconstitutional, then that court must permit the legislature a reasonable period of time to change the funding system so as to bring the system in compliance with the Colorado Constitution.”

Legislature didn’t respond to ruling this year

Rappaport did stay her ruling to give the legislature time to work on the issue, and the filing of the appeal put the entire issue on ice. With the appeal pending, lawmakers didn’t talk much about Lobato this year.

A Democratic attempt to commission a Lobato cost study fizzled, as did a Republican effort to have the legislature intervene in the case.

The one major reform bill of 2012, the Colorado READ Act (House Bill 12-1238), was passed with $21 million in funding. That was in marked contrast to previous reform legislation, such as the 2008 Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids and the 2010 educator effectiveness law, which passed without significant funding.

School funding system complex

Colorado school districts spent about $9.7 billion for all expenses in 2010-11, the most recent year for which the state Department of Education has full data. Instructional costs totaled $4.4 billion.

Ed funding for 2012-13
  • Find individual district allocations for the upcoming school year in this EdNews database.

Schools get money from a variety of sources, many of them earmarked, such as state funds for transportation costs, property taxes to pay off bonds and federal funds for special education students and high-poverty schools.

In Colorado, the most closely-watched budget item is what’s called total program funding, the combination of state and local funds used to pay staff, operate buildings and support other basic operations. Total program funding for 2012-13 is about $5.3 billion.

Under the school finance formula created in 1994, the legislature each year sets a base amount of per-pupil funding. Additional factors such as district size, staff cost of living and numbers of at-risk students are considered to come up with customized per-pupil amounts for each district. Districts receive varying percentages of state aid based on the amount of local revenues. Overall, the state contributes about 65 percent of total program funding.

What the “friends” say

Here are summaries of arguments in the friend-of-the court filings, formally known as amicus curiae briefs. Links to the full briefs are in the box near the top of this article.

A number of the briefs that side with the state were solicited by the offices of Gov. John Hickenlooper and Attorney General John Suthers.

Former governors – Bill Ritter and Dick Lamm, both Democrats, plus Republican Bill Owens signed on to this brief. The filing reads, “The Amici submit this brief to provide the Court with their viewpoint and understanding of the Executive Branch’s constitutional and statutory responsibilities regarding K-12 public education funding – including guiding administering, and approving the General Assembly’s appropriations, and the difficult policy and fiscal challenges the State of Colorado faces, which ultimately render these issues inherently political in nature and thus ill-suited for resolution through the courts.”

An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that former Gov. Roy Romer was among those signing the brief.

University of Colorado – The CU regents’ brief urges the court to consider state support of higher education, saying, “As this Court considers the rationality of an educational finance scheme that affects millions of Coloradans, the Regents have an important interest in ensuring that the judiciary gives meaningful effect to the Colorado Constitution’s mandate that the State of Colorado ‘establish and support’ institutions of higher education.” While not taking a position on the district court’s Lobato ruling as it relates to K-12 funding adequacy, the CU brief argues that the supreme court needs to take in to consideration all state funding needs, including higher education.

Colorado Concern and business groups – The brief argues, “It is important to also understand that education funding is not the state’s only priority. … Ultimately, our elected representatives must make difficult choices in how to fund each of these priorities, and must do so within the spending and revenue limitations articulated in the constitution and the myriad similar requirements in statute.”

Represented on the brief are the Colorado Hospital Association, Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Contractors Association, Colorado Competitive Council, Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, Progressive 15, Colorado Mining Association, Colorado Association of Mechanical and Plumbing Contractors, Colorado Bankers Association, Colorado Association of Health Plans, Denver South Economic Development Partnership, National Federation of Independent Business and the Associated General Contractors of Colorado.

Colorado League of Charter Schools and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools – The brief doesn’t side with the state or the plaintiffs in the case but rather seeks to raise some charter issues for the court. “Charter school finance in Colorado is ‘broken’ and, if there is a remand [to the district court] for remedy, should be addressed. … Colorado’s system of school finance fails on its own statutory terms to ‘equalize’ funding for charter school students, or even provide amounts that reasonably approximate the publicly defined level of minimum per student funding. The result is not sustainable,” the brief concludes.

Behavioral Healthcare Council and Alliance – Siding with the state, the brief argues, “While public education is undeniably critical to Colorado’s future, there are other state services that are equally critical to Colorado’s children, and inextricably linked to the goals of public education. Dramatically increasing funding for public education, while simultaneously cutting other social service spending, would be a Pyrrhic victory for those children whose other needs, such as mental healthcare or developmental disabilities, are not being met.” The council is an association of mental health care providers; the Alliance represents providers of services to clients with development disabilities.

listening tour

We asked six Colorado school board members what they want from the state’s next governor. Here’s what they said.

Democratic gubernatorial candidates Donna Lynne, Noel Ginsburg and Cary Kennedy at a candidate forum hosted by the Colorado Association of School Boards. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

Late last week, nine candidates for Colorado governor came together to talk education, addressing an annual fall conference of school board members.

Now, we’re giving some of those audience members a chance to speak up.

Before the gubernatorial hopefuls took the stage, Chalkbeat recorded interviews with a half-dozen school board members who represent districts across the state. Our question to them: What are the big education questions you hope the next governor will take on?

Not surprisingly, funding challenges came up time and again.

One school board member asked for a more predictable budget. Another asked for schools to get their fair share of annual increases in new tax dollars. One went so far as to say the next governor would be a chicken if he or she didn’t take on reforming the state’s tax code.

We also heard a desire for leadership on solving teacher shortages, expanding vocational training and rethinking the state’s school accountability system.

Here are the six gubernatorial wishes we heard from Colorado’s school board members:

Reform TABOR to send more money to schools

Wendy Pottorff, Limon Public Schools

Since the Great Recession, Colorado schools have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And while the state legislature has tried to close its education funding shortfall, lawmakers haven’t been able to keep up. Getting in the way, Pottorff says, is the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR.

Change the conversation about public schools


Paul Reich, Telluride School District

Reich says public schools are under attack under the false premise that they’re failing — and that isn’t helping the state recruit bright young teachers. He said the next governor must change the conversation about schools to make teaching a more desirable profession.

Provide a clear budget forecast

Anne Guettler, Garfield School District

Approving a school district’s budget is one of the many responsibilities of a Colorado school board. That’s a tall challenge when the state’s budget is constantly in flux, Guettler says. She hopes the next governor can help provide a clearer economic forecast for schools.

Rethink school accountability to include students and parents

Greg Piotraschke, Brighton 27J

Colorado schools are subject to annual quality reviews by the state’s education department. And it’s time for the state to rethink what defines a high-quality school, Piotraschke said. He suggested the governor could help rethink everything from how the state uses standardized tests to how to incorporate parents and students into the review process.

Give schools more resources to train the state’s high-tech workforce

Nora Brown, Colorado Springs District 11

In light of Colorado growing tech sector, several gubernatorial candidates have come out in support of more technical training for Colorado students. But that costs money, Brown says. The Colorado Springs school board member said promising better job training for high school students without more resources is empty.

Remember there’s a difference between urban and rural schools

Mark Hillman, Burlington School District

Crafting statewide policy is an onerous task in Colorado, given the diversity of the state’s 178 school districts. Hillman said the next governor must remember that any legislation he or she signs will play out 178 different ways, so they must be careful to not put more undue pressure on the state’s smallest school districts.

Colorado Votes 2018

Five things we learned when Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates got on the same stage to talk about education

Colorado Republicans running for governor addressed some of the state's school board members at a forum hosted by the state's association of school boards. From left are George Brauchler, Steve Barlock, Greg Lopez, Victor Mitchell and Doug Robinson. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Nine Republicans and Democrats hoping to become Colorado’s next governor offered contrasting views Friday of the state’s public schools to an audience of more than 100 local school board members.

Most of the five Republicans told the crowd of locally elected officials — who are charged by the state’s constitution with governing Colorado’s public schools — that their programs were in need of improvement and innovation, and that they were there to help.

The four Democrats hoping to succeed fellow Democrat Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is term-limited, pledged to reform the state’s tax code to send more money to schools.

The candidates spoke at the annual fall delegation conference of the state’s association of school boards.It was the first forum of its kind to address education issues exclusively this election election cycle.

Unlike previous elections, Colorado’s public education system has been a key policy debate early in the campaign. Several candidates, especially Democrats, have worked on education issues before.

Here are our five takeaways from the forum:

The Republican candidates didn’t pull any punches when they said the state’s public schools were in need of improvement — and several said that they were the ones to do it.

From District Attorney George Brauchler to businessman Doug Robinson, every Republican candidate said one part or another of the state’s school system needed to do better.

“Education is life itself,” said former state lawmaker Victor Mitchell. “And there is no greater challenge facing our state than 50 percent of our at-risk kids who graduate can’t complete college-level course work.”

Both Mitchell and Robinson pointed to their experience as entrepreneurs as evidence that they could help set the state’s schools free of what they consider unnecessary red tape. Brauchler called for empowering teachers and parents.

Every Democrat and several Republicans agreed that the state’s schools were in a “funding crisis.” But they offered very different paths forward.

It was an easy question for Democrats. Businessman Noel Ginsburg, former state Sen. Michael Johnston, former state treasurer Cary Kennedy and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne were in lock-step that the state’s schools are in need of more money.

“If we don’t fundamentally solve this crisis, the rest of the issues don’t matter,” Johnston said.

Former state Sen. Michael Johnston and Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne talk after a forum for gubernatorial candidates. Both are Democrats. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Johnston and Kennedy forcefully pledged to take on the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits how much tax revenue the state can collect and requires voter approval to raise taxes.

Lynne was more tempered. While she acknowledged tax reform was needed, she said wanted a legislative committee working on school finance to complete its work before suggesting any overhauls.

Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker and a small business owner, was the only GOP candidate who said he would take on the state’s complicated tax laws. If elected, he promised to establish a committee to send a reform proposal to voters.

Robinson and Brauchler acknowledged that schools were in a funding crunch. But they stopped short of saying they’d send more money to schools.

Mitchell said “he wasn’t sure” if there was a funding crisis, but added, “The system should be reformed before it’s fully funded.”

PERA, the state’s employee retirement program, could play a prominent issue in the election — especially for Republicans.

Earlier at the conference, school board members received a briefing on a proposed overhaul to the state’s retirement program, which includes school district employees.

While the situation is not as dire as it was a decade ago, the program’s governing board has become so increasingly worried about unfunded liabilities that it’s asking state lawmakers to pass a reform package to provide more financial stability.

Two Republicans, Brauchler and Steve Barlock, who co-chaired President Trump’s campaign in Colorado, said PERA was in crisis. Barlock warned school board members that their budgets were in jeopardy as lawmakers fiddle with the system.

Neither went into any detail about how they hoped to see the retirement program made more fiscally stable. But watch for this issue to gain greater traction on the campaign trail, especially as Republican state Treasurer Walker Stapleton ramps up his gubernatorial campaign, and as lawmakers begin to wrestle with PERA reforms next year. (Stapleton did not attend the forum.)

Some candidates offered careful responses to a question about school choice. Others, not so much.

Every Democrat and one Republican, Brauchler, said they respected a family’s right to choose the best school for their children. But that choice, they said, should not come at the expense of traditional, district-run schools.

“I’m concerned that we’d build a system where the success of some schools is coming at the expense of other schools,” Kennedy said.

Republicans strongly supported charter schools, and in some cases, vouchers that use taxpayer dollars to pay for private schools. Robinson called on creating new ways to authorize charter schools. Mitchell said he wanted to repeal a provision in the state’s constitution that has been used to rebuff private school vouchers.

There’s no party line over rural schools.

Republicans and Democrats alike said the state needed to step up to help its rural schools, which are typically underfunded compared to schools along the Front Range. They need more teachers, better infrastructure and fewer regulations, the candidates said.

“We need to get rural areas into the modern age,” Robinson said.