In the early 1970s, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of New Mexico’s education finance system. This equity lawsuit alleged that expenditures varied unconstitutionally depending on local school districts’ wealth. The parties reached a settlement before trial when New Mexico leaders shifted funding for school operations to the state level in order to provide essentially equal resources to each district. The 1974 Public School Finance Act resulted in the state funding over 80% of education costs.
Zuni School District v. State
Over the years, however, facilities in many low-property-wealth school districts deteriorated. In 1998, a number of these districts brought a suit, Zuni School District v. State, CV-98-14-II (Dist. Ct., McKinley County Oct. 14, 1999), claiming that the funding system for capital items was unconstitutional. After the Public School Finance Act was implemented, local districts still bore primary responsibility for capital funding. The trial court ordered the state to “establish and implement a uniform funding system for capital improvements . . . and for correcting existing past inequities.”
At the end of 2001, a proposal to fund a $1.2 billion capital program was defeated by a filibuster. Instead, the state settled on a $400 million capital program and created a new capital funding system intended to establish a standards-based adequacy level for facilities in all districts.
In subsequent years, the new capital funding system failed to establish an adequate and uniform level of funding. In 2006, $90 million of extra funding was directed to capital projects in high-growth areas, mainly Albuquerque’s West Side. Plaintiffs’ attorneys went to court in March 2006 to argue that the added funding was unfair to smaller districts. The case was vacated in 2008.
Zuni Public School District v. Department of Education
In Zuni Public School District v. Department of Education, a group of school districts filed suit to prohibit the state from offsetting its funding of districts by the amount of federal impact aid payments made to those districts. All of the school districts in the suit were located on federal and tribal lands in predominantly Native American areas with meager property tax bases, qualifying them for federal impact aid. On April 27, 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that New Mexico was allowed to deduct federal impact aid from New Mexico school districts when allocating state aid.
Yazzie and Martinez
Two separate groups of parents of educationally disadvantaged, Latino and Native American students filed education adequacy litigations in the spring of 2014 against the State of New Mexico and its Public Education Department. The suits charge that New Mexico is denying children the “uniform and sufficient education” guaranteed by Art XII §1 of the state constitution, and one suit claims violations of the state constitution’s equal protection clause as well.
The first suit, Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, brought by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, criticizes funding mechanisms in the state’s current education system, which has 24 separate components to its foundation funding formula, and highlights a 2008 American Institute for Research cost analysis that concluded that operational expenses were underfunded by approximately $350 million deficit in operational expenses. The public education budget has continued to decrease since those numbers were reported. The second suit, Martinez v. State of New Mexico, brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, challenges the state’s “punitive” teacher evaluation system. In New Mexico, teacher evaluations are based 50% on student performance as assessed through student test scores and school rankings. According to the plaintiffs in Martinez, this system is irrational and discourages quality teachers from applying to or staying in New Mexico’s schools. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund also broadened its lawsuit in June 2014 to contest New Mexico’s financing of special education programs for disabled students in public schools.
In October 2014, a New Mexico state court judge denied the state’s motion to dismiss the Martinez case. In denying the state’s motion to dismiss, the court explicitly affirmed that education is a fundamental right in New Mexico.
Subsequently, the Martinez and Yazzie cases were consolidated. After two months of testimony by nearly 80 witnesses, trial in these consolidated cases concluded in August 2017. A decision is expected in the winter or spring of 2018.
For information regarding other states with facilities/capital funding cases, see Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho.