Denver District Judge Sheila Rappaport began hearing arguments yesterday on one of the most provocative education lawsuits in Colorado's history, Lobato v. State of Colorado.
The lawsuit alleges that the state supplies schools with too little while demanding high standards and specifically violates two clauses of its own constitution: the "Local Control Clause" whereby local school boards retain control over instruction within their districts, and the "Education Clause" that requires the General Assembly of Colorado provide a "thorough and uniform system of free public schools throughout the state, wherein all residents of the state, between the ages of six and twenty-one years, may be educated gratuitously".
The plaintiff's first witness was Center Consolidated Schools Superintendent George Welsh, according to a report by Law Week Colorado. Welsh testified that students at Haskin Elementary need a library open more than two days a week and updated school supplies like textbooks and computers. Welsh also said the schools have been buying their books from Amazon.com.
A non-profit education advocacy law firm called Children's Voices is representing plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The firm also has the help of eight legal firms and over 20 attorneys in legal horsepower who have filed thousands of hours in pro-bono work, made possible by the Colorado Lawyers Committee which commits 56 law firms to set aside a certain number of hours for pro-bono work each year.
“The state continues to ask people to do more with less and less," Executive Director of Children's Voices Kathleen Gebhardt said at a press conference the morning before the trial.
Colorado Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Heinke on Monday made his opening arguments arguing that the state's system of school funding is constitutional.
“The state of Colorado makes a tremendous investment in public education, and that investment is yielding results,” Heinke said.
If Judge Rappaport rules in the plaintiffs' favor, Colorado could end up spending $2-4 billion more on education that could end up having three outcomes, Deputy Attorney General Geoff Blue told Jon Caldera on his show, the Devil's Advocate.
Plaintiffs, Blue said, "can say that TABOR must give way to the education clause in the constitution and therefore the court can order the legislature to raise taxes," or the court could take all the funding out of the budget and shift it over to education, or the state could be required to take the money set aside for education and re-distribute it among education districts.
TABOR was passed in 1992 as a state constitutional amendment to prohibit the legislature from raising taxes without a vote. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities however, TABOR has been a factor in the decline of Colorado's K-12 funding. The Center says that between 1992 and 2001 Colorado went from being 35th in the nation in K-12 spending to 49th as a percentage of personal income. In the past six years, state spending cuts to K-12 education are nearing $600 million.
It will be a busy week for education. Just two floors down from the Lobato v. State of Colorado trial, the hearing on the request for a preliminary injunction to Jefferson County's pilot voucher program began today.