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Colorado Livin' / School

Denver judge rules low funding for Colorado schools is “unconscionable”

In a ruling that could have profound consequences for Colorado’s budget, a Denver judge Friday said the state’s school-funding system is not “thorough and uniform” as mandated by the state constitution.

The state’s school-funding system “is not rationally related to the mandate to establish and maintain a thorough and uniform system of free public schools,” District Judge Sheila Rappaport said in a 183-page ruling in which she called the system “unconscionable.”

“It is also apparent that increased funding will be required,” Rappaport wrote.

The case, Lobato vs. State of Colorado, was filed in 2005. It originated with a group of parents in the San Luis Valley but expanded to include districts from across the state.

Lawyers for the state, represented by Attorney General John Suthers’ office, argued that the question of how much should be spent on education should be left to the legislature and voters. They also said more money alone is not necessarily the solution to better schools.

But Rappaport clearly disagreed.

“There is not enough money in the system to permit school districts across the state to properly implement standards-based education and to meet the requirements of state law and regulation,” she wrote in her ruling. “This is true for districts of every description. . . . There is not one school district that is sufficiently funded. This is an obvious hallmark of an irrational system.”

Certain to be appealed

The judge said the problem has been compounded by continued budget cuts to education in recent years, adding, “Current economic conditions, however, are not the source of the school finance crisis. They have made an unworkable situation unconscionable.”

Eric Brown, spokesman for Gov. John Hickenlooper, said the state will almost certainly appeal the decision to the Colorado Supreme Court​.

“The court clearly invited an appeal, and we believe an appeal is likely,” Suthers spokesman Mike Saccone said. “It was clearly very tempting for the District Court judge to wade into what is a public policy debate.”

“We won big time,” said attorney Alexander Halpern, who, along with Kathleen Gebhardt, initiated the lawsuit in 2005.

The judge’s ruling requires the state to come up with a funding system that pays for all that legislators have asked schools to do and prevents lawmakers from implementing “any and all laws that fail to establish and fund a thorough and uniform system,” he said.

However, the judge, apparently recognizing that an overhaul of the system for funding public education could take time, has stayed the order for “a reasonable amount of time,” so that lawmakers can work on a new system. Depending on how that system is structured, it could require approval by voters.

The judge also ruled that the current system erodes local control because the lack of sufficient state funding ties local school boards’ hands, Halpern said.

The plaintiffs argued that no calculation had ever been made of what the true cost is of providing a “thorough and uniform” public education to all students.

The lawsuit doesn’t seek money. However, one consultant hired by Halpern and Gebhardt estimated the state’s current funding system falls short by as much as $4 billion a year.

The state now spends more than 40 percent, or $3.2 billion in the 2010-11 fiscal year that ended in June, of its almost $7 billion general fund on K-12 schools.

“Wow. Wow. Wow.”

Coloradans in November, by a 2-to-1 margin, shot down a $3 billion tax-increase measure for schools.

Meanwhile, the current school-finance system would stay in place until the Colorado Supreme Court either makes a final ruling in the case or if defendants or plaintiffs ask Rappaport to revisit the ruling. Rappaport indicated she wanted lawmakers to address the issue, saying the injunction against the state couldn’t be revisited until the end of the 2012 legislative session.

Lawmakers responding to the ruling were scrambling to understand it.

Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, a former schoolteacher and State Board of Education member, hailed the decision. “It makes a statement about the necessity of adequate school funding.”

Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, a witness in the case, also was shocked, but not so ecstatic.

“Wow,” he said. “Wow. Wow. This ruling is extremely disappointing.”

King said during his 12 years as a lawmaker, “we’ve done a thorough and comprehensive job of analyzing how to fund districts in the state of Colorado.”

Schools are “not underfunded,” he said. “With the pressure of Medicaid on the budget, we have to balance our resources with all the demands. Not one area should be absolute in its funding from the state of Colorado.”

-Staff writer Karen Auge contributed to this report. Tim Hoover: 303-954-1626 or [email protected]

Mile High Mamas
Author: Mile High Mamas

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  1. This is the height of judicial arrogance. 2/3rds of Coloradans just voted not to increase school funding. Yet this single judge has decided that she can overrule the decisions of the legislature and the will of the vast majority of citizens to decide what is the proper level of school funding. Disgraceful.

  2. Actually, this is one of the most conservative, most “textual” decisions I have read in a LONG time.

    This Judge is simply insisting that the Colorado Constitution be enforced as it is written.

    The right ought to be complimenting this Judge on the restraint shown in the decision.

    For the Judge to do anything OTHER than say that the Constitution should be enforced in this way would be judicial activism at its worst.

    Guess some here don’t like judicial restraint; they want outcome-oriented jurisprudence instead.

  3. I think King is missing the point of “thorough and uniform”. When the football team in Cherry Creek worries about what type of tear away jersey to purchase and the San Luis valley is wondering how to afford a jersey. The example holds true from textbooks, to music department, to chemistry labs etc. This is not a “thorough and uniform” system when the advantaged have all the advantages from age 3-18 in our school system. On the other hand this can cut two ways. Perhaps funding needs to be reduced for affluent districts rather than increased for poorer district. It all depends on ones point of view. When I was a kid we ran on cinder tracks and played on grass-less playgrounds. I thought I got a wonderful education. In this aspect, maybe Judge Sheila Rappaport missed the point.

    In education there is a long history of unfunded mandates. That point is well taken. Sadly I am sure the posts will reflect a I got mine and heck with the next generation attitude.

  4. Exactly so.

    The issue is also the same in many DPS schools.

    Your last sentence is, sadly, correct as well.

  5. I don’t think you understand the concept of a “judge” — one who is to render a decision.

    The job of a judge is to determine whether the legislature and governor are doing their jobs properly under the confines of constitutional requirements. It is the legislature which has usurped their authority — not the judge.

  6. Those kids that are being educated are the future doctors who will treat you illnesses, the engineers who will design the roads you drive on in the cars they design, who will help ensure the safety and efficacy of the drugs you use, grow the food you eat, and do all the work that makes the society you live in run.

  7. …..and medicaid is already causing too many pressures on the system according to king? of course this comment had to be included at all costs. geesh. maybe we will have to raise taxes to pay for all this.

  8. Thank you. It is so great to read someone who gets it.
    Education is the most important element of a free and productive nation. There is no other route to global leadership and respect.
    The very fact that people do not understand the importance of education to a free society that you have correctly identified, underscores the urgency and need.
    Without the best education and educators, how can we as a nation be self-reliant in this century? How can we hope to compete on the world stage?

  9. “Sufficiently funded” – sounds like a subjective standard that is impossible for an objective analysis by the judiciary. This is the reason we have many decisions that are left to the executive and legislative branches of government. Activist judges who like to grab power delegated to the other branches need to be reminded of the constitutional provisions for the separation of powers. Judge Rappaport should have a debate with Judge Martinez (who ruled against school choice scholarship program in Douglas County) about their conflicting rulings: The State doesn’t spend enough in an inefficient system vs. Taxpayers can’t use scholarships in an open market system that would allow that competition to force more efficiency. Given the lean economic times, it would seem the Douglas County School Board is right on target with creative solutions at the local level with tax revenues. Centralized government is inefficient and full of top heavy administrative costs, and unfairly rewards those inefficient school districts (Denver) with funds to the detriment of effective districts. This is why the Republican concepts of school choice to use market forces to create efficiency through giving parents more power. The Democrat answer is simply increase taxes to through into an already broken system. Rollie Heath was wrong – as the ultimate wisdom of our democratic system proved at the polls, while the election of Pro-Choice Republicans in Douglas County showed the people are smarter than the legislature and judges. Remember – this is a government of the people, by the people, and FOR the people – not the reverse.

  10. Thorough and uniform?

    It is not practical to have one large school system. The local schools are funded by the local property taxes. Smaller schools have smaller monetary needs.

    Sufficiently funded is an arbitrary measure. Some people will claim there is never enough money because that is their agenda.

    This is a bad ruling.

  11. Love the first line of the Post story-
    How a bout a ruling that could have profound effect on students? We fund students on average 2000.00 less per year per student here. It’s about time. What the GOP really fears is and educated electorate. They don’t care about deficit or spending. This ruling represents a longer term threat to their ability to drown voters with ignorance, and offers a step toward real hope for schools, students, the state and the future of our country. There is no better
    investment we can make than in education. We all benefit from smart people.

  12. A few things are evident in this ruling:

    1. We don’t have the money in our state budget to implement a FAPE (free and appropriate public eduction)
    2. Contrary to what the public thinks, we ARE underfunding education and the “performance” the public is demanding in light of the underrfunding is unrealistic
    3. Even if nothing changes in terms of education funding, this ruling notes the disparity in funding and the education the state is providing.

    We’ve made cut after cut after cut to education – an area which impacts our children and their future – yet we’re demanding school districts and educators to sustain and continue increasing student achievement. Not practical.

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