SANTA FE – With a number of students in attendance, the New Mexico Supreme Court revisited a yearslong case Monday on whether state money should pay for textbooks for private schools.
Plaintiffs argued that allowing the state to pay for the textbooks is unconstitutional because it puts state money toward a private entity that isn’t under the direct control of the state. The other side argued that the decision hurts rural areas, in particular, and discriminates against certain New Mexico residents by excluding them from receiving resources available to others.
The justices are no strangers to the arguments, as the panel had ruled the practice unconstitutional in 2015.
That decision upheld a case filed in 2012 by New Mexico parents Cathy Moses of Santa Fe and Paul Weinbaum of Las Cruces against the state’s Public Education Department, which sought to stop tax-supported textbooks and computer programs for private schools.
Due to that case, 109 private schools in the state no longer receive public funds for textbooks.
But last year, the U.S. Supreme Court told the New Mexico Supreme Court to revisit the case after overruling the 2015 decision.
That opinion followed a U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that ruled Missouri’s Trinity Lutheran Child Learning Center, a religious preschool and childcare, had the right to state funds for a playground renovation.
A decision from New Mexico’s highest court is expected by the end of the year.
Frank Susman, who represented Weinbaum and Moses, argued that since private schools aren’t under absolute control of the state, including its curriculum and finances, they aren’t privy to the textbooks provided by taxpayers.
The attorney noted there is a finite amount of funding available to public schools, which he said were underfunded to begin with. And he said to put money toward private schools would be a disservice to the public school system.
Susan Hapka, representing the PED, disagreed, arguing the disservice lies in taking away textbooks from schools that already rely on them.
Textbooks and computer programs at private, including some religious, schools is estimated to cost $1 million a year.
Hapka said she believes the financial toll will eventually fall on the parents and students if schools have to make up the difference.
“New Mexico has a long history of loaning textbooks to schoolchildren,” she said.
Eric Baxter, representing the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools, said the textbook lending program is 80 years old.
He also said rural areas rely more on private education and the textbooks provided by the state, adding it’s a much smaller burden for the state to provide textbooks than to provide an education for all of the kids attending private schools.
He said the lawsuit the state Supreme Court upheld relies on “anti-Catholic” measures known as Blaine Amendments – 19th century state law that Baxter says “was originally designed to disadvantage New Mexico’s native Catholic citizens.”
“Now, in New Mexico and across the country, Blaine Amendments have been used to keep religious organizations from participating in neutral, generally applicable government programs on the same terms as everyone else,” he wrote in a statement.
In court, Baxter said the ultimate harm is that certain New Mexican citizens are barred from approaching the state for resources that other citizens can.
Baxter was joined by a group of students and parents from private schools, who also advocated for the textbook lending program.
“Access to textbooks is essential for students,” said parent Joshua Abeyta.
Abeyta said he has seen first-hand how quality textbooks can be a crucial factor in students’ success in school.
And Erica Olguin, 14, from St. Therese Catholic School – where she found her favorite book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and a passion for reading – emphasized the importance of literature in the classroom.