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May 29, 2013

On May 28, 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court issued its opinion in Lobato v. State, where parents sought sufficient and fair funding so that schools could offer all students the opportunity to reach state learning standards. The court articulated a good legal standard but, according to the dissent, failed to apply that standard to the facts adduced at trial.

"This ruling is a devastating blow to the children of Colorado," said Kathy Gebhardt, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement to Fox news Denver on Monday. "Today the court closed its doors to the children of Colorado. The court has bowed out ... . The court said that we must now trust our politicians to address the acknowledged and enormous resource needs of children throughout the state."

"It is difficult to imagine how the justices could read the facts found by the trial court below and find that the system meets the constitution's "thorough and uniform" requirement," Gebhardt continued. "The trial court found after a five-week trial that Colorado's school finance system was so inadequate and inequitable that it was not just unconstitutional but unconscionable."

As a threshold matter, the court held that Lobato is justiciable. Although the court had already found the case justiciable in its 2009 Lobato ruling, defendants raised this question again and got the same answer.

Next, the court interpreted the Colorado Constitution's Education Clause, which "directs the General Assembly to 'provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state'" for 'all residents between the ages of six and twenty-one years.'" The court stated that "'thorough' commonly refers to something of a quality that is marked by completeness. It also refers to something that is 'marked by attention to many details,' or is, in other words, comprehensive. The term 'uniform' connotes something that is characterized 'by a lack of variation, diversity, [or] change in form' or that is 'consistent . . . in character.'" (citations omitted)

"Thus, a 'thorough and uniform' system of public education is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state," the court wrote.

After explaining this interpretation, however, the majority in this 4-2 decidion ignored the facts compiled at trial, which document the many educational essentials---such as safe and adequate school buildings, qualified teachers, books, technology, programs for children with disabilities, programs to teach English, and preschool---that are incomplete, missing, and inconsistent in public schools and districts across the state.

The court failed to address any of these missing and disparate educational resources. While the constitution calls for a thorough and uniform system of public schools, the court found a single funding law and hung its hat there. The dissent pointed out that a single funding law is not a uniform system of schools.

Writing in dissent, the court's chief justice said that "Today, the majority abdicates this court's responsibility to give meaningful effect to the Education Clause's guarantee that all Colorado students receive a thorough and uniform education. In my view, a thorough and uniform system of education must include the availability of qualified teachers, up-to-date textbooks, access to modern technology, and safe and healthy facilities in which to learn."

"The record, however, reveals an education system that is fundamentally broken," he declared. "It is plagued by underfunding and marked by gross funding disparities among districts."

"Colorado's education system is, beyond any reasonable doubt, neither thorough nor uniform," he concluded.

Related Stories:
Court Finds High Quality Pre-K Needed and Colorado Pre-K Weak
Colorado Underfunds Programs Needed to Teach English
Court Finds Colorado Shortchanges Students with Disabilities
Latest Race to the Top Grants Go to States at Bottom on School Funding Equity
Key Findings in Lobato v. State Colorado Ruling
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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