Schools Call N.M. Funding System Illegal

SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) – New Mexico unconstitutionally denies poor and nonwhite children access to education, and the budget cuts keep coming, three school districts and parents of dozens of children claim in court.
     Citing abysmal test scores and wide inequities in spending in different areas of the state, the schools and parents accuse New Mexico of failing its disadvantaged children and sending high school graduates into the work force without preparing them for life.
     Lead plaintiff Wilhelmina Yazzie sued New Mexico, its Department of Public Education, and the department’s Secretary-Designate Helen Skandera, on Oct. 7 in Santa Fe County Court.
     The 63-page lawsuit cites grim statements about public education in New Mexico.
     New Mexico children ranked 50th in the nation in the “Chance for Success” category in a 2014 study by Quality Counts, a national organization.
     The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s “Kids Count” study ranked New Mexico 50th in the country in overall well-being, 49th in education, 49th in economic well-being, 49th in health and 49th in family and community.
     The National Achievement Educational Performance test showed New Mexico tied with Mississippi for dead last in 4th grade reading. Only 21 percent of New Mexico’s 4th graders read at or above grade level, and only 31 percent of them were at grade level in math in the 2013 NAEP test.
     Geography and other factors contribute to New Mexico’s almost insuperable problems in education. It is the nation’s 5th-largest state and the 6th least-densely populated, forcing schools to spend more on transportation. Only 71 percent of New Mexicans speak English as a first language, due to the state’s large Native American and Latino population. New Mexico ranks 46th in per capita income, and land on its immense Indian reservations is immune from federal tax, further undermining schools’ tax base.
     Despite these difficulties, and the need for increased spending in poverty-stricken schools, New Mexico has cut educational funding and failed to meet the needs of schools with low-income students. Under its State Equalization Guarantee, New Mexico distributed $3,872 per student in 2008, for a total of $2.35 billion, according to the complaint. But in 2011, the per-student distribution had dropped by 7 percent to $3,599, for a total of $2.29 billion.
     In 1987, New Mexico appropriated 51.6 percent of its budget for public education; it dropped to 44 percent this year.
     State aid is distributed according to a funding formula that allocates the same amount of money to all students, despite differences in the wealth of their school districts, and despite two state-funded studies that found the system flawed and inequitable.
     The schools also criticize New Mexico’s so-called “below the line funding,” which distributes money outside the regular funding formula, on the basis of grant applications. Such funding, distributed by the Public Education Department, favors schools that can afford to spend time on grant writing.
     The school districts and parents want the school funding formula declared unconstitutional under the state constitution, they want the spending formulas corrected, the “below the line funding” declared unconstitutional and corrected, and a declaration that the level of public school funding is unconstitutional.
     The plaintiff school districts are Gallup/McKinley County School District, Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education, and Moriarty-Edgewood School District.
     The plaintiffs are represented by Gail Evans with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in Albuquerque, and Robert Rosebrough in Gallup.

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