DENVER–Taxpayers dodged the specter of billions of dollars in court-ordered tax hikes for education Tuesday after the Colorado Supreme Court upheld the state’s financing system for public schools.
The high court ended a hotly contested eight-year judicial battle by declaring the state’s K-12 funding formula constitutional, overturning a lower-court ruling that threatened to plunge the state into a legal and political crisis.
The much-anticipated decision had been scheduled to be released Tuesday, but Fox31 Denver reported that it was posted on the court’s website Monday, then removed. The television station then re-posted the opinion, dated May 28, 2013, on its website.
In the 4-2 opinion, the court held that the state’s school financing formula meets the constitutional mandate that the General Assembly provide for a “through and uniform” system of education funding.
Supporters of the lawsuit had called for as much as $4 billion in additional state spending on K-12 education, a scenario that would have likely resulted in steep tax increases and a constitutional clash with the Colorado Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
Gov. John Hickenlooper had opposed the lawsuit, saying the consequences for the state could be “devastating,” as did Attorney General John Suthers.
A coalition of education and civil-rights groups had argued that the state’s funding system is both inadequate and inequitable, but the high court ruled that “thorough and uniform” does not mean absolute equality.
“Our interpretation of ‘thorough and uniform’ is consistent with the exclusions described in [Lujan v. Colorado State Board of Education] providing a public school system that is of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive, and is consistent across the state does not demand absolute equality in the state’s provision of educational services, supplies, or expenditures,” said the court.
In his dissent, Chief Justice Michael Bender said the state’s education system is “plagued by underfunding and marked by gross funding disparities among districts.”
“I cannot conclude, as the majority does, that the finance system is rationally related to providing a thorough and uniform education when the record reveals an education system so crippled by underfunding and so marked by gross disparities among districts that access to educational opportunities is determined,” said Bender, who was joined by Justice Gregory Hobbs.
The state funds all school districts based on a formula that factors in criteria such as the number of at-risk students and English-language learners, but school districts may supplement that funding by asking their voters to approve mill levies and bond measures.
The result is that school districts in wealthier neighborhoods often enjoy better amenities. In her 2011 ruling, District Court Judge Sheila Rappaport held that the state needed to spend more money on education, calling the current funding level “unconscionable.”
While her decision did not mention a figure, the lawsuit’s advocates have said the system is underfunded by as much as $4 billion, more than double the current K-12 spending level. The state now spends more than 40 percent of its general fund on K-12 education.
State Sen. Greg Brophy (R-Wray) blasted the dissenting justices for standing by the lower-court ruling.
“Thoroughly disappointed with Chief Justice Bender and Justice Hobbes,” said Brophy in a Twitter message. “They clearly think of themselves as legislators still . . . If Hobbes and Bender want to spend more on education, they should run for the legislature, reform entitlements and put more money in ed.”
Kathy Gebhardt, attorney for the plaintiffs, called the ruling a “devastating blow for the children of Colorado,” according to Fox31.
Bringing the lawsuit was Taylor Lobato, a graduate of Center High School in the San Luis Valley, as well as 21 school districts. Supporters include the Colorado Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Colorado Association of School Boards and the Colorado Association of School Executives.