DENVER (AP) -- Colorado school funding took center stage in the state's highest court Thursday, a landmark case that seeks to settle a yearslong debate between lawmakers and educators: How should legislators ensure that every student has a quality education?
The lawsuit from parents and 21 school districts, most in Colorado, challenging the state's school funding system as unconstitutional could have far-reaching implications on the already cash-strapped budget.
"The children now turn to the courts to help protect their constitutional right," said David Hinojosa, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of several groups that are part of the lawsuit.
Assistant Attorney General Jon Fero, arguing on behalf of the state, began his remarks by saying that deference to legislators over policy decisions such as school funding should "be at its apex."
The lawsuit was filed in 2005. A ruling could be months away, and if the state loses, lawmakers may be directed to devise a new school funding system and find more revenue sources, potentially with a tax increase.
Plaintiffs have argued that the state has violated its constitutional promise of providing a "thorough and uniform" education system and that not all students in Colorado have access to the same technology and latest curriculum, especially those living in low-income areas.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs have argued that the state has done a poor job making sure school districts get the money they need. They have listed several examples of schools they say are in sore need of funding. The school building in Sanford, in Colorado's San Luis Valley, had a partially collapsed and leaking roof, and inadequate lighting until recently. Other schools have globes where the Soviet Union still exists and books where Bill Clinton is still president.
Fero emphasized that Colorado can't afford to increase funding to schools — an area of the budget that already makes up nearly half the general fund.
"To the plaintiffs, spending 45 cents of every state dollar on K-12 education, more than nearly all other state services combined, is both inadequate and irrelevant," he said.
A Denver District judge ruled last year that the state's educational funding system is "irrational and inadequate" and that there isn't a single district that is sufficiently funded.
Fero told the justices that the lower court should've allowed the state present evidence about Colorado's limited budget, and the constitutional prohibition against lawmakers to raise taxes.
Plaintiffs did not ask for a monetary amount in the lawsuit, and say they want the state to implement a system that ensures money is used where it's needed most. But the plaintiffs have estimated that state schools are underfunded by $4 billion.
State officials say Colorado has more than doubled spending on public education since 1994, and more than 40 percent of the budget now goes to education, a sharp contrast to 1939, when local property taxes made up about 95 percent of school funding.
In one of the more lively exchanges, Justice Gregory J. Hobbs, Jr., asked Fero whether he disputed that educational disparities exist across the state.
"It would certainly appear that a lot of the communities, Native American, Hispanic, rural areas, are suffering disparate deficiencies compared to the more well-funded districts that have larger local tax base," Hobbs said.
Fero replied that Hobbs' question suggested the case was about equity, rather than defining what the constitutional standard of what is a "thorough and uniform" education system.
"We haven't gotten there yet in this case," Fero said.
Wyoming and Missouri are other states that have been sued over school funding. Colorado attorneys have argued that simply increasing funding to education won't improve results.
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