Fiscal Pressures Cannot Justify Inadequate Education, Colorado Court Rules

In one of a series of pre-trial rulings issued in Lobato v. State of Colorado last month, Denver District Court Judge Sheila A. Rappaport granted plaintiffs’ motion to exclude evidence and arguments concerning the impact of revenue restrictions imposed by the “Taxpayers Bill of Rights” (TABOR) provision of the state constitution on educational appropriations. TABOR generally ties increases in overall tax revenue to inflation and population growth, with some limited exceptions for certain categories of expenditures including some, but not all, educational expenditures. Judge Rappaport wrote that:

The Court finds that while fiscal pressure may explain why students’ rights have been violated, it has no bearing on the issue whether students’ rights have been violated. That is, Defendants cannot, as a legal matter, excuse the legislature’s failure to comply with the mandates of the Education Clause by pointing to seemingly difficult decisions.

The evidence on non-education appropriations and the effects of TABOR are distinct from students or the actual quality of the education they receive. The quality of the public school system provided to students must stand or fall on its own. The quality of that system cannot logically be saved or enhanced by the legislature’s desire to spend money on other programs or tax credits. See order attached.

In the trial that began on August 1, 2011, Plaintiffs are seeking to establish that the current state education finance system denies students the “thorough and uniform education” to which they are entitled under the State Constitution. The Colorado Supreme Court had denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the claim in a decision issued in 2009.

In its pre-trial rulings, the Court also denied Defendants’ request to require plaintiffs to prove their allegations beyond a reasonable doubt, and held under the standards-based education system adopted by the state, “educational opportunity is defined in part by statutorily mandated academic content standards and measured by student achievement or qualitative outcomes.” Therefore, qualitative outcomes may be considered, as one factor, in determining whether the Defendants have met their constitutional duty.

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