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Colorado Supreme Court Upholds State's K-12 Funding System

As state legislatures continue to close up shop for this year, significant education news has occurred in the last few days involving both Texas and Colorado. Let's review important activity in both states quickly.

The Colorado Supreme Court issued a ruling on May 28 that the state is not constitutionally required to increase education funding. The ruling, in Lobato v. Colorado reverses a 2011 lower court decision in favor of the parents and school districts that brought the suit, and upholds the state's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) law, which requires voters to approve any tax increases in Colorado, and it reverses a lower court's decision in 2011 that sided with the plaintiffs. That law will come into play relatively soon, as voters will consider a roughly $1 billion tax increase designed to buttress a new K-12 funding system.

The Denver Post reports that a leaked copy of the ruling was posted a day before it was scheduled to be released.

In their 4-2 opinion, the majority of the justices write that in the current Colorado public education financing system, local school districts have enough power over raising revenues in their own communities, and sufficient control over how those revenues are spent in terms of instruction, to succeed despite limited resources.

"While we do not dispute that public education in Colorado would benefit from additional funding, the local control built into the public school financing system 'provides each district with the opportunity for experimentation [and] innovation' in using limited resources to achieve educational excellence," the justices wrote, citing the Lujan v. Colorado State Board of Education ruling in 1982. They also wrote that the court must avoid making policy, and should also not make decisions that are "intrinsically legislative."

In his dissent, Chief Justice Michael Bender says that the "reality of public education in Colorado," including the adoption of new academic standards and the increase in English-language learners, shows that the significant drop in state K-12 funding over the last four decades (relative to the national average in spending) is badly out of step with what the public education system needs.

The court's decision appears to remove at least one potential hurdle for a major overhaul in the state's education funding system that was approved by the governor earlier this year. This weighted-funding system would provide more resources to less-wealthy districts while instituting a new method for calculating daily attendance at school that its backers, who include Sen. Mike Johnston, a Democrat and the primary author of the legislation, say is more accurate. The plan is intended to give more support to districts with high numbers of English-language-learners and low-income students.

This is not the only prominent school funding case working its way through state courts. Earlier this year, a Texas District Court judge ruled that the state has not been adequately funding education, although the final decision will rest with the state Supreme Court. And after ruling that Washington state was not funding public education in the manner required by the state constitution, the Washington Supreme Court gave state lawmakers until 2018 to fix the problem, and has been keeping a very active eye on how legislators are responding. (Bender actually mentioned the Washington state case, McCleary v. Washington, as a possible model for Colorado, in terms of oversight, that he would have preferred.)

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