Local Control of Instruction

Unlike most states, the public school system in Colorado grew out of an intentional commitment to local control. Rather than establishing a centralized, state-administered system, Colorado’s constitutional framers “made the choice to place control ‘as near the people as possible’ by creating a representative government in miniature to govern instruction.” [Owens v. Congress of Parents, Teachers and Students, 92 P. 3d 933, 939 (Colo. 2004).]

So, unlike many of our sister states, local control in Colorado is not a matter of personal political views, national trends or public opinion; it is a matter of state constitutional law. Learning what the state constitution means by “control of instruction” is an essential step toward understanding local school boards’ roles in public education. The Colorado Supreme Court possesses the ultimate authority to interpret the state’s constitution and emphasizes, “control of instruction requires power or authority to guide and manage both the action and practice of instruction as well as the quality and state of instruction.” [Denver Bd. of Educ. v. Booth, 984 p.2d 639, 648 (Colo. 1999).] The court further explains that such control allows localities to tailor educational policy to suit the needs of each district, free from state intrusion. [Owens, at 935.]

The court has also decided that districts maintain control over instruction primarily by maintaining control over locally raised funds. [Booth, at 648.] The court confirms its conclusion by articulating several benefits flowing from the control of local boards over locally raised tax dollars. [Owens, at 941-44.] Some of these benefits include:

  • Empowering electors, including parents, with control over instruction
  • Providing taxpayers with a means to participate in the management of public education
  • Granting a community the freedom to devote more money to educating its children than the state-guaranteed minimum amount
  • Enabling the local citizenry greater influence and participation in the decision-making process on how local tax dollars are spent
  • Ensuring each district has the opportunity for experimentation, innovation and a healthy competition for educational excellence

In 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court revisited the issue of local control in a school finance case that lasted almost a decade, known as Lobato v. State of Colorado. This lawsuit, brought by a group of school districts and students, alleged the state system’s level and methods of public school funding violated the Colorado Constitution. Siding with the state, the court’s order acknowledged deficiencies in the system but found it did not violate the Colorado Constitution’s mandates for a “thorough and uniform” system of education and the control of instruction by locally elected school boards. [Lobato II.]

The Supreme Court overruled the trial court’s specific finding that school districts are financially unable to meet the demands of state mandates and therefore are clearly unable to exert local control to extend initiatives in pursuit of “experimentation, innovation and a healthy competition for educational excellence.” With respect to local control, the Supreme Court acknowledged – as found by the trial court – that school districts may use a substantial portion of their locally raised funds to help their students achieve state standards. Because nothing in the public school financing system itself requires a particular allocation of local funds, the court found the system does not violate local control.

Local school boards are constitutionally entrusted with meeting the needs of students in their communities and must exercise this authority responsibly to ensure this governance model remains relevant and respected by voters and state and federal policy-makers. In sum and practically speaking, “local control of instruction” translates into the ability of individual school boards to make decisions on issues such as curriculum, personnel, budget, school calendars and classroom policy.