Hickenlooper, state appeal Lobato education-funding decision

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper announced today that the state would appeal a recent district judge’s ruling in the Lobato case, which declared that the state has failed to fund a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education for Colorado students.

“It is clear after closely reviewing the judge’s decision in Lobato v. Colorado and consulting with Attorney General John Suthers that a final resolution of the constitutional and legal issues involved in the case require an appeal to the Colorado Supreme Court,” Hickenlooper said in a release.

“The judge’s decision provided little practical guidance on how the state should fund a ‘thorough and uniform’ system.”

Defendants in the case include the state, Hickenlooper, the state Board of Education and education Commissioner Robert Hammond.

The Lobato decision, handed down earlier this month by District Judge Sheila Rappaport, constituted a sweeping victory for the parents and members of the school districts who filed the suit years ago. In her lengthy ruling, Rappaport made clear that practical considerations and constitutional constraints against raising revenue weren’t a primary concern for the court. Lawmakers would simply have to find a way to meet the state’s obligations.

“Due to lack of access to adequate financial resources, the Plaintiff School Districts and the school districts where Individual Plaintiffs reside (collectively, the “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 wrote.

“The Court therefore concludes that Colorado public school children are not receiving the thorough and uniform educational opportunities mandated by the Education Clause.”

Analysts have estimated that the state would have had to raise between $2 billion and $4 billion to comply with the ruling, or about half the present $5.2 billion education budget.

Colorado school funding falls near the bottom relative to other states, but constitutional provisions, namely the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, the Gallagher Amendment and Amendment 23, demand that any tax hike in Colorado must be approved by voters. An initiative presented to voters this past November seeking to raise taxes to fund education failed in a landslide.

Hickenlooper did not endorse that initiative and he has said that the courts are not the place to hammer out education policy.

“There are more appropriate venues for a vigorous and informed public debate about the state’s spending priorities,” Hickenlooper said in his statement. “We look forward to a swift decision in this case so the people of Colorado and their elected representatives can participate in the school funding conversation.”

The appeal process is likely to stretch out the Lobato case for another year, effectively letting this year’s legislature off the hook in trying to find extra billions for education.

The appeal news comes in the wake of Hickenlooper’s announcement Tuesday that he is pushing lawmakers to restore $89 million in education funding this year based on higher than anticipated state revenue totals. The governor’s office said revenue for fiscal year 2013 was on track to come in at $231 million above projections. Hickenlooper has suggested $67 million would go to k-12 schools and $30 million to higher education.

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