DENVER – Schools and parents suing Colorado about how it funds education are urging the state Supreme Court to uphold a lower court ruling that found the current system to be “irrational and inadequate.”
The plaintiffs said in a filing late Tuesday that the way Colorado funds education prevents districts from teaching an up-to-date curriculum, puts low-income students at a disadvantage, and leaves buildings in some places unsafe.
With significant implications for the state budget, the case has huge stakes because if it can drastically change how lawmakers fund schools, or force the state to find additional revenue if the plaintiffs win. Their attorneys claim that schools are underfunded by an estimated $4 billion.
A date for oral arguments has not been set.
State attorneys argued in a July filing that how Colorado funds education should be decided by lawmakers, not the courts. The state appealed after losing in Denver District Court last year. Parents and 21 school districts – most of them in rural Colorado – filed the lawsuit in 2005, claiming that the state was violating its constitutional promise for a “thorough and uniform” education system.
The state attorney general’s office has argued that Colorado has met its funding obligation. More than 40 percent of the general-fund budget goes to K-12 education, and state attorneys argue that other departments will suffer if lawmakers are forced to allocate more money to schools.
Attorneys for the school districts say the ruling in their favor does not strip the Legislature’s discretion over funding, arguing in the 80-page filing that “the trial court decided no education policy issues.” They said in the filing that lawmakers would have time “to change the funding system so as to bring the system in compliance with the Colorado Constitution.”
“The court did not dictate the new funding system’s structure or dollar amount, recognizing that” those are legislative functions, the plaintiffs said.
Although attorneys for the plaintiffs have estimated how underfunded schools are, they have insisted they’re not necessarily asking for money. Instead, they say they want a court declaration saying Colorado has violated its constitution and for lawmakers to develop a new funding system so money is used where it is needed the most.
“There is no merit to Defendants’ inflammatory assertion that the trial court ordered the State to spend billions more dollars annually on education,” said the attorneys for parents and school districts.
The attorney general’s office said it would not comment on the latest filing until it filed its response in court, due in three weeks.
In the plaintiffs’ filing, attorneys list several examples of schools they say are in sore need of funding. The school building in Sanford, in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, had a partially collapsed and leaking roof, and inadequate lighting until recently. In Creedes’ elementary school, the second floor is inaccessible because the district doesn’t have money to repair the staircase, the filing said. Other schools have textbooks from the 1980s and don’t have enough for students to take home.
“These problems are not the districts’ fault,” the filing said.
But state government attorneys have argued that simply putting more money into schools doesn’t improve the quality of education. They cite Wyoming and Missouri as states where groups have sued to get more education funding, but results have not improved as a result.