A divided Colorado Supreme Court rebuffed a legal challenge Monday to how the state funds public schools, telling a parents' group that lawmakers can slash education budgets and still comply with a constitutional amendment requiring increases to funding per pupil.
The parents argued that the state shouldn't be able to cut overall education spending. That's because of a constitutional requirement that lawmakers increase so-called "base per-pupil funding" each year." That amendment was approved by voters in 2000.
The parents' group argued that voters generally thought they were saying that school budgets wouldn't be cut. But the "base per-pupil funding" is just a slice of how Colorado sends money to local school districts, which is called "total program funding."
When Colorado hit a recession a decade later, lawmakers needed a way to rein in growth in education funding. They created what they called the "negative factor" to comply with per-pupil base increases and still cut overall education spending. In other words, lawmakers increased the per-pupil base while deeply slashing "total program funding" to schools.
Since 2010, the "negative factor" has allowed lawmakers to shave some $894 million in school funding, according to a legislative analysis.
A parents' group and some other education allies sued over the "negative factor" last year, saying it violates the spirit of the school-funding amendment.
The Supreme Court disagreed Monday in a 4-3 ruling. Justices sent the lawsuit to a lower court with instructions to dismiss it. The majority of the court agreed with attorneys for the state, who argued that voters specifically called for an increase in "base" funding, not overall school funding.
"If voters had wished to increase 'total' per pupil funding rather than 'base' per pupil funding, they would have said so," the judges concluded.
But three judges wrote a lively dissent attacking the state's view as preposterous.
"Voters surely did not intend the annual increases to statewide base per pupil funding to be pointless," the dissenting judges wrote.
Justice Monica Marquez, who wrote the dissent, pointed out the lawmakers could just scrap the entire school finance formula as long as the "base" part goes up.
"Although the state faced extraordinarily difficult fiscal choices during the recent recession ... enacting cuts to education funding that circumvent a constitutional amendment was not one of the Legislature's options," she wrote.
Monday's decision represents the second time the three years that the court has rebuffed a landmark education challenge.
In 2013, justices rejected a lawsuit saying that Colorado was violating a constitutional mandate to provide a "thorough and uniform" public schools system. The Supreme Court also ruled in that case that case that Colorado wasn't obligated to spend more on K-12 public education.