Civics Lesson: Colorado Supreme Court Asserts School Finance Authority

Update, 10/21: Joshua Dunn dissects the decision in writing over at the Education Next blog. Check it out.

I haven’t had a chance to take a course yet in Colorado civics and government, so maybe I’m just a bit confused. Isn’t the legislature supposed to make the laws, and the courts just supposed to interpret them? Well then, how do you explain this overreaching 4-3 decision from the Colorado Supreme Court?

The Lobato case started in 2005 when large group of parents from eight school districts across the state and 14 school districts in the San Luis Valley sued the state, claiming that Colorado’s school finance system violates the state constitution’s requirement for a “thorough and uniform” public education system.

In March 2006 Denver District Judge Michael Martinez ruled against the plaintiffs, concluding the current system meets the requirements of Amendment 23, isn’t subject to court review and that the school districts didn’t have standing to sue.

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

The high court’s decision Monday overturned all that and sends the case back to district court for trial.

Is the narrow Colorado Supreme Court majority preparing to move our state down the dangerous path of judicially-written school finance policy? Or just sending a shot across the state legislature’s bow urging them to get something done? In any case, the issue is only likely to drag on for years to come.

If you want to get up to speed quickly on the issue, listen to UCCS professor Joshua Dunn explain the case (Dunn is the author of Complex Justice and co-editor of the new volume From Schoolhouse to Courthouse), and how yesterday’s ruling puts Colorado out of step with most of the rest of the nation that has come to realize the problem with school funding adequacy lawsuits:

So can judges re-write the laws now? Some big people are telling me that this is hardly a new phenomenon with the Colorado Supreme Court. Guess I’ll just have to wait until I reach that Colorado civics class to find out for sure.