Judiciary May Intervene As New Mexico Weighs School Funding

Jan 10, 2018

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico lawmakers and the state's Republican governor are seeking more money this year for public schools as a state district court contemplates whether far more sweeping changes to state spending and oversight may be needed to fulfill constitutional guarantees for an adequate education.

Local school districts, parents and advocacy groups pressed forward this week with a lawsuit that accuses the state of failing to meeting constitutional obligations to provide a sufficient education for all students, citing lagging academic proficiency and high school graduation rates that trail most of the country.

Closing arguments were filed Tuesday evening that also highlights the plight of low-income, Native American and English-language learners at New Mexico public schools.

At the same time, the state's Democratic-led Legislature wants to increase annual general fund spending on public education in the coming fiscal year by nearly 2 percent to about $2.7 billion. Gov. Susana Martinez is seeking an additional $20 million that includes annual bonuses of up to $10,000 for high-performing teachers, as the Legislature convenes next week to craft a state budget.

Gail Evans, legal director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, applauded new proposals to increase funding to early education initiatives that extend the school year and provide prekindergarten to more children — but said that the state still would fall far short of its legal obligations to students. On behalf of school districts and parents, the center and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund are seeking a court injunction to increase and redirect school resources.

"New Mexico actually knows what it needs to do to improve the educational outcomes of our children. It just hasn't made the investment in what it knows works," Evans said.

New Mexico is one of several states where courts are being called upon to shore up funding for public schools, as frustration mounts with elected officials over state budget priorities and the quality of education.

Education officials under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez have defended state spending on classrooms as more than adequate and say that new programs are helping struggling students and holding teachers accountable.

Public Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski said Wednesday that New Mexico wants to gradually extend pre-kindergarten across the state but that some school districts are not ready to implement it. He said efforts to extend the school year for at-risk students have been hindered by requirements that corresponding teachers work the same extended calendar.

Ruszkowski declined to comment directly on the funding sufficiency lawsuit, citing pending litigation. A decision by District Court Judge Sarah Singleton is expected in the spring.

New Mexico's school districts rely mostly on state funding for educational programs with some federal aid, as they struggle with some of the nation's highest childhood poverty rates.

The pending lawsuit also accuses the state of not following through with 2003 reforms designed to better engage Native American students.

New Mexico's classrooms serve the highest percentage of Hispanic students in the country and the second-highest percentage of Native American students after Alaska — providing a testing ground for cultural enrichment programs and bilingual instruction involving Spanish and several Native American languages.

State lawmakers also are proposing a tax hike on tobacco products to increase funding to public schools by raising the price on a pack of cigarettes by $1.50 and tax e-cigarettes for the first time. Several new legislative proposals would increase financial distributions from the state's two major sovereign wealth funds.

Similar proposals to funnel more money from tobacco sales and state investments toward education have failed to win approval from the Legislature in recent years.