Weekend Wrap-up: Colorado courts ruling o’er state schools
Citizens of Colorado hold elections every year to send representatives to different venues to consider and decide on policy (and allocate resources) for their children’s education: in odd-numbered years, for local school boards; in even-numbered years, for the state legislature, which has the constitutional authority to “provide for the establishment and maintenance of a thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state.”
Yet ultimately, the decisions about how education is funded, and how schools are run, are being made in neither of these arenas, but in the courts.
News coverage this week has highlighted this fact with two prominent cases:
- Douglas County school choice voucher program
- Lobato v. Colorado education-funding lawsuit
In the Douglas County school voucher program, the issue before the court revolves around whether an elected school district board has “the broad authority to contract with private schools for the provision of a public education to public school students.” [per Education Policy Center] One might think that making decisions about the provision of public education is precisely why county residents elect a school board, but apparently (at least in the view of the plaintiffs, and the courts in Colorado) those decisions are better made by appointed judges.
The Douglas County case also touches upon important constitutional issues such a separation of powers, establishment of religion, and collection & allocation of tax dollars, but ultimately comes down to a very basic and fundamental issue: who decides how to educate Colorado’s children?
For additional information on this case, read:
- “Judge orders halt to Douglas County voucher program“, Denver Post (12 August 2011)
- “Judge halts voucher pilot for now“, Education News Colorado (12 August 2011)
- Denver District Court ruling, Larue v. Colorado Board of Education & Taxpayers for Public Education v. Douglas County School District
Lobato v. Colorado education-funding lawsuit
The case with far broader implications for public education in Colorado (and the state’s budget) is the Lobato v. Colorado education-funding lawsuit, which just wrapped up the 2nd week (in a trial expected to last 5 weeks total) of testimony and argument, also in Denver District Court.
In this lawsuit, plaintiffs allege (on the basis of a single phrase in the state Constitution, without regard for the actual assignment of decision-making authority and responsibility to the state legislature in that same phrase) that Colorado’s school-funding system is “unconstitutional.” Plaintiffs seek an additional $3-4 BILLION per year in state spending (plus a near-term increase in school construction of some $18 Billion) to “fix” the alleged constitutional deficit.
One not need look very far (indeed, just across the border to Kansas) to see the potential for a fiscal and budgetary train wreck of epic proportions. Indeed, as Governor Hickenlooper correctly points out, the consequences for Colorado would be “devastating.”
This educational-funding lawsuit (seeking to force even higher state educational spending by court order) represents yet another abuse of the courts for the pursuit of political ends – unfortunately aided and abetted by an all-too-complicit (and highly political) majority on the Colorado Supreme Court, which previously (October 2009) overturned two lower courts which had (correctly) dismissed the case (Lobato v. Colorado) as non-justiciable (meaning, a policy issue not to be decided by the courts).
Bottom Line: the lawsuit seeks money the state simply does not have, based on extremely tenuous grounds (a few words in the state Constitution calling for “thorough and uniform” education), and is improperly seeking to achieve these goals via the courts, not through the legislative branch or local school boards where such issues are properly decided.
The issue of educational funding is NOT one for the courts, but rather for the legislature and/or local school boards. The Lobato lawsuit is a fiscal, legal, and political disaster in the making.
Read more about the Lobato school funding case in these recent articles:
- “Lobato case primer” (Education News Colorado, 11 August 2011)
- “Lobato lawsuit unfounded” (Denver Post, 11 August 2011)
- “In Lobato, might high court issue a ruling it can’t enforce?” (Colorado News Agency, 11 August 2011)
These cases highlight the importance of fair and impartial courts and of judges who exercise proper restraint (in accordance with the rule of law) in considering – let alone deciding – issues of policy more appropriate for the elected, representative branches of government. Our courts have an important – even vital – role to play in our society and system of government. This is not it.
Clear The Bench Colorado will, with your support, continue to promote transparency and accountability in the Colorado judiciary, informing the public to increase awareness of the substantial public policy implications of an unrestrained activism and political agendas in the courts. We will continue to work to educate voters and provide information of relevance related to the judicial branch, and to provide useful and substantive evaluations of judicial performance.
Ultimately, though – it’s worth the effort.