By a 4-2 vote, Colorado’s Supreme Court held on May 28, 2013 that Colorado’s public financing system complies with the state constitution, thereby reversing the trial court’s 2011 decision that held that the system was unconstitutional.
The majority defined the requirement for a “thorough and uniform” system of public education in the Colorado Constitution as one that is “of a quality marked by completeness, is comprehensive and is consistent throughout the state.” The court determined that the current state school system is “rationally related” to these criteria because it is based on a “multi-faceted statutory approach that applies uniformly to all of the school districts in Colorado.” Specifically, the system provides a foundation formula that covers major areas of educational need, includes categorical programs that provide extra funding for at-risk, ELL and other students with extra needs, and permits local school districts to ask their constituents to fund capital improvements through bonded indebtedness.
After setting forth this summary description of this “single statutory framework,” the majority did not consider or refer to any of the extensive findings regarding the inadequacy of current funding levels to meet state standards set forth in the trial court’s extensive 183-page decision. The Court also held that the system meets the “local control” requirement of the constitution because it allows school districts to make decisions about the spending of locally-raised funds, even if low wealth districts “have less fiscal control than wealthier districts.”
Chief Justice Bender, in a strongly worded dissent, drew extensively on the trial court record in finding that the education system is “is plagued by underfunding and marked by gross funding disparities among districts.” He stated that “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.” Justice Hobbs, in a separate dissent, stated that the majority’s definition of the key constitutional phrase failed to adequately capture the intent of the framers, noting, for example, that the dictionary definition of “completeness” requires “full attention to details,” and that a system is “uniform” when it is “consistent in….characteror effect.”