In the early 1970s, plaintiffs filed an “equity” lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of New Mexico’s education finance system because expenditures varied markedly depending on local school district wealth. The case was settled before trial when New Mexico leaders decided to fund the operations portion of education costs at the state level and provide essentially equal resources to each district. The 1974 Public School Finance Act resulted in the state funding over 80% of education costs, second only to Hawai’i in this regard, and the system has continued to produce more equitable funding than systems in most states. However, for capital funding, local districts have borne primary responsibility.
Over the years, facilities in many low-property-wealth school districts deteriorated. In 1998, a number of these districts brought a capital funding/facilities 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. The trial court granted partial summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs and ordered the state to “establish and implement a uniform funding system for capital improvements . . . and for correcting existing past inequities” and set a deadline at the end of the 2001 legislative session.
At the end of 2001, a proposal to fund a $1.2 billion capital program was defeated by a filibuster, and the state settled on nearly $400 million and a new capital funding system intended to establish a standards-based, adequacy level for facilities in all districts.
On January 14, 2002, the special master reported to the court that the state was making a good faith effort to comply with the court’s order and “has made great strides.” Nonetheless, lower wealth districts are concerned that the new system will actually exacerbate facilities disparities among districts. The additional state funding will not change the low-wealth districts’ scant bonding capacity, but may enable higher wealth districts to use their strong bonding capacity for superior facilities. The school district plaintiffs and the state had 10 days to file any objections they had to the special master’s report. The plaintiffs did file objections, arguing primarily that the failure to resolve the disparity in bonding capacity between districts would ultimately perpetuate inadequacy again, rather than creating an agreed-upon adequacy level, as might have happened if all districts had been barred from tapping into outside sources of funding. Despite the objections, the court approved the special master’s report in the summer of 2002.
In 2006, $90 million of extra funding was directed to capital projects in high-growth areas, mainly Albuquerque’s West Side. The $90 million was funded largely at the behest of Governor Bill Richardson, and was completely outside of the facilities funding stream that the legislature had established since 1999. Plaintiffs’ attorneys went to court in March 2006 to argue that the added funding was unfair to smaller districts. Fast-growing districts such as Albuquerque, which plaintiffs’ attorneys noted was not taxing at the maximum level locally, were able to use their political clout to receive extra funding, violating the principle of uniformity that had been carefully embedded in the current system. The hearing in March convinced the judge to call a “review” for the fall of 2006, which would debate the constitutionality of the way the state is currently funding facilities needs. Subsequently, the case was vacated. In the spring of 2008, Plaintiffs attorneys are considering returning to court.
On April 27, 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that New Mexico was allowed to deduct federal impact aid to New Mexico school districts when allocating state aid. In Zuni Public School District v. Department of Education, plaintiff school districts had argued that the state was prohibited from reducing school funding by the amount provided in the form of federal impact aid. The districts are located on federal and tribal lands in predominantly Native American areas with meager property tax bases, qualifying them for federal impact aid. The state deducted $35.8 million from its aid to the plaintiff districts in 2005-06.
Two separate groups of parents of educationally disadvantaged, Latino and Native American students filed wide-ranging 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 their children the “uniform and sufficient education” guaranteed by Art XII §1 of the state constitution, and one of them 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, emphasizes the complexity of the state’s current education system, which has 24 separate components to its foundation funding formula, criticizes the growing use of “below the line” categorical funding, and highlights a 2008 American Institute for Research cost analysis that concluded that operational expenses were underfunded by approximately $350 million. 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 Fund, includes, among other constitutional violations, the state’s “punitive” teacher evaluation system which is based 50% on student performance, assessed through student test scores and school rankings; according to plaintiffs 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 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. The state had moved to dismiss the action on the grounds that, among other things, plaintiffs lacked standing and had failed to state a claim for which the court was competent to grant relief. In denying the state’s motion to dismiss, the court explicitly affirmed that education is a fundamental right in New Mexico, stating: “Frankly, its hard not to think of a more important service that the state provides its citizens than the fundamental right to an education. An educated populace is not only fundamental to our current well-being but our future well-being.”
After two months of testimony by nearly 80 witnesses, trial in these consolidated cases concluded in August, 2017. A decision is expected in the fall or winter.
For information regarding other states with facilities/capital funding cases, see Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho.