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Colorado Starts New School Finance Lawsuit: How Different than Lobato?

Back at the end of May I told you about another school finance lawsuit looming in Colorado. Even as my Education Policy Center friends were helping me write that, I could almost hear the distant strains of anguish. Lobato was floating out there for nearly eight years… do we really have to endure the same excruciating twists and turns again?

The answer is “Sort of.” On Friday, June 27, the same law firm that brought you Lobato made it official when they filed Dwyer v State in Denver District Court. The good news is this time they’re not asking to break the bank:

The plaintiffs ask that the negative factor section be stricken from the state’s school funding law and that the legislature be barred from reinstating the factor in another form. The suit does not ask that lost funding be restored.

After all, National Education Association data indicates that Colorado ranks 21st in per-pupil spending. So cries for an extra $2 billion a year in the wake of Amendment 66‘s decisive electoral conflagration might just be scoffed at this point.

My Education Policy Center friends like to show they’re on the cutting edge. So of course, Ben DeGrow interviewed Prof. Joshua Dunn about the then-looming Dwyer case exactly two days before it was introduced. Now, granted the fact they were speculating on limited information, but Professor Dunn said he doesn’t believe the outcome of Dwyer will be any different than Lobato.

For what it’s worth, writing after the suit was filed, the editors of the Denver Post issued a different take:

This is a serious allegation, with a lot more substance than the Lobato litigation, which the Supreme Court finally rejected last year after a lengthy history before various judges. Lobato argued the schools deserved more money under a wholly subjective standard. This lawsuit argues the schools deserve more under a specific, guaranteed formula.

The new case has aimed its sights at reviving the once popular Amendment 23, narrowly adopted by Colorado voters in 2000. The measure requires core K-12 funding to increase each year at least the rate of inflation (after the first 10 years, which was inflation plus 1 percent). About five years ago, the legislature and the governor agreed to create a “negative factor” for the school funding formula to help balance the budget as funds got tighter.

It was about that time a Denver Post columnist concluded “Amendment 23 was well-intentioned, but it’s now just a fuzzy math formula that no longer adds up.” Meanwhile, groups that lobby for more K-12 budget dollars railed against the idea. Not until this year, when the state started rolling back the so-called “negative factor”, did somebody at last decide to take it to court.

Strange timing, I guess. Dunn later stated in the interview that the Dwyer plaintiffs have a stronger case than their Lobato predecessors, but contends the Colorado Supreme Court will be reluctant once again to overstep legislative prerogatives and difficult budget balancing decisions.

Whoever is right about where and how this case ends up, it looks like we’ll be in for a few more years of it. Time to practice patience and endurance.