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School funding trial begins Monday

Posted: Thursday, Jul 28th, 2011

VALLEY — A landmark case rooted in the San Luis Valley goes to trial in Denver on Monday.

The trial in the Lobato v. Colorado case, challenging the state’s public school funding system, will start at 8 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 1 in Denver District Court, with Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport presiding.

This is the first statewide school adequacy lawsuit to be tried in Colorado.

The Lobato case began with Center school district parents like Anthony and Denise Lobato, the first plaintiffs named in the case, who maintained that Colorado’s school finance system violated the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” public education system.

The case focused on insufficient funding for uniform quality education throughout the state and consequently the lack of empowerment of local school boards to control instruction in their school districts.

“The state has persistently failed to fund education in a rational manner and at the levels required to meet constitutional and statutory standards of quality,” the case states.

As a result, the plaintiffs add, local school boards “are prevented from effectively exercising local control of instruction in their schools.”

One of the points in support of their case is that in 2009, Colorado ranked 48th among the 50 states in elementary and secondary school revenues per $1,000 of personal income and 47th in elementary and secondary school expenditures per $1,000 of personal income.

“Although Colorado’s average per capita income is fifth highest in the nation, it spends 10.8 percent below the national average for public elementary and secondary education.”

Plaintiffs add that while funding has been cut in recent years, the state expects more from its schools: “Because of lack of access to adequate financial resources, school districts are not able to provide the educational programs, services, instructional materials, equipment, staffing, and facilities necessary to fulfill critical educational goals, including those identified by the general assembly in education reform legislation.”

The Lobatos, along with several other Center parents, numerous other parents of children in school districts around the state, and the 14 school districts in the San Luis Valley, began their efforts in this case in 2005.

In March of 2006 Denver District Judge Michael Martinez ruled against the plaintiffs, stating that the current system met the requirements of Amendment 23, was not subject to court review and the school districts did not have standing to sue.

A Colorado Court of Appeals panel upheld the district court decision in January 2008.

However, by a 4-3 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court in 2009 overturned the previous rulings and sent the case back to district court for trial.

“The Colorado Supreme Court holds that the plaintiffs may challenge the current state’s public school financing system as violating the Colorado constitutional mandate of the education clause requiring a ‘thorough and uniform’ system of public education,” the 2009 decision said.

“Following 1982 precedent, the court holds that it is the responsibility of the judiciary to determine whether the plaintiffs prove that the public school finance system is not rationally related to this constitutional mandate.”

The “1982 precedent” was the Lujan case (also begun by San Luis Valley residents), which successfully challenged the equity of the school finance system.

The high court also ruled that the existence of Amendment 23 was not a defense against any challenge to the school finance system’s adequacy because it only sets minimum funding levels.

The 2009 opinion was written by Justice Michael Bender and supported by Chief Justice Mary Mullarky and justices Gregory Hobbs and Alex Martinez.

Center School District Superintendent George Welsh will be one of the speakers on Sunday, July 31 at a kick-off event on the steps of the state capitol in Denver to mark the start of the trial.

Following the higher court’s ruling that sent the matter back to district court for trial, Welsh had stated, “We welcome the opportunity to show how the state’s lack of funding for education affects all students, from the lack of early childhood education programs to inadequate preparation for college and the work force. The state’s lack of funding is preventing us from providing kids with a meaningful 21st century education.”

Children’s Voices is the public-interest law firm that originally brought the lawsuit.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) entered the process in February 2010, focusing on its allegation of “irrational and inadequate funding” for at-risk students and English Language Learner students.

The Lobato case points to the fact that students whose dominant language is not English and whose academic achievement is impaired due to inability to comprehend or speak English represent one of the fastest growing populations in the public schools, more than tripling in the past 10 years.

Documents in the case state there are 100,000 Colorado public school students (12 percent of total statewide enrollment) whose dominant language is not English and who are functioning below grade level. While Spanish-speaking students constitute the majority of these students, Colorado school children come from families with some 200 different native languages.

“Providing an adequate education for these students, specifically including rapidly bringing them to English language proficiency, is within the mandate of the Education Clause and is required by education reform,” the Lobato case states.

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