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School-Funding Lawsuit Rekindles Longstanding Fight in Colorado

Thirteen months after the Colorado Supreme Court ruled against a group of plaintiffs seeking to dramatically increase state funding for public schools in Lobato v. Colorado, a group of districts and the state PTA have  started a new fight over K-12 finance. In a legal complaint filed June 27, they say that the state has failed to adhere to the basic funding formula in its constitution.

Courtesy of Chalkbeat Colorado, the suit alleges that beginning in fiscal 2011, lawmakers reacting to the nationwide financial crisis introduced a new budgeting procedure for K-12, called a "negative factor," that significantly reduced the amount of per-pupil funding provided by the state. Essentially, the factor amounts to a funding cap. This maneuver, the plaintiffs say, runs afoul of Amendment 23 to the state constitution that Colorado voters approved in 2000. This amendment requires the state's "base" rate of K-12 spending to increase by at least the rate of inflation plus 1 percent for the next decade, and by at least by the rate of inflation after that.

The plaintiffs allege that the negative factor has deprived schools of roughly $4 billion since it was instituted, including in the fiscal 2014 budget year that's about to conclude. Just how much have lawmakers deviated from what Amendment 23 requires? The plaintiffs lay out the disparity in this chart:

Colorado.PNG

"Amendment 23 precludes the General Assembly from purporting to grow the base but then slashing overall education funding," the plaintiffs say in their complaint.

The plaintiffs in Lobato said that the state was failing to provide a "thorough and uniform" system of public schools and sought more funding as a remedy. They had been making that claim in court for eight years. But this new suit, filed in state district court, makes more specific allegations about the funding formula that state uses and, in the eyes of the Denver Post editorial board at least, the complaint has "a lot more substance" behind it than Lobato.

Although the new case is separate from Lobato, Chalkbeat reports that one of the lead attorneys also worked on the Lobato case for the plaintiffs. The situation does call to mind the remark of Michael Griffith, who tracks school finance at the Education Commission of the States, that, "These school finance cases never end."

The new legal complaint actually marks the second significant effort in less than a year in Colorado to require a major increase in school funding. The first attempt came at the ballot box last November, when teachers' unions and others in the state unsuccessfully sought to have voters approve Amendment 66, which would have directed a proposed statewide income tax increase of nearly $1 billion annually to public schools. 

Read the full complaint below:

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