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Updated: Judge seen upholding private-school law

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A judge appears poised to rule that the state can continue to pay for textbooks for private school students in New Mexico.

District Judge Sarah Singleton concluded a hearing Monday by saying nothing in the New Mexico Constitution bars the state from paying for private schools’ instructional materials.

Paying for the textbooks and other instructional materials ensures “we have a literate populace regardless of where they go to school,” the judge said.

Also, Singleton told the state’s lawyers to present her with a draft order in their favor, and a lawyer for individuals who sued the state said it was obvious that Singleton will rule against them.

“I don’t think (Singleton) will change her mind. It will be up to the plaintiffs to decide if they want to file an appeal,” said Frank Sussman, an attorney for plaintiffs Cathy “Cate” Moses of Santa Fe and Paul Weinbaum of Las Cruces.

At issue is the constitutionality of a state law that authorizes spending on instructional materials for private schools.

The spending amounted to approximately $900,000 in the 2012-2013 school year, the Santa Fe New Mexican reported (http://bit.ly/18f4rds).

The lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Moses and Weinbaum cites a constitutional provision that bars public funding for private education.

However, Singleton said the provision doesn’t specifically include a ban on providing textbooks.

The Public Education Department has argued that neither plaintiff is harmed by the practice of supplying textbooks for private schools and that state Superintendent Hanna Skandera should not be held accountable for a practice dating to New Mexico’s territorial days more than a century ago.

Both sides’ lawyers cited court rulings in other states on similar issues, but Singleton said New Mexico cases and laws are different.

Singleton said she believes the state-funded books “remain in the control” of the Public Education Department.

A 2012 report from the Education Commission of the States said all but 10 states have constitutions prohibiting state funding for nonpublic schools. The report also said 21 states provide some sort of state aid for textbooks and instructional materials.

Moses and Weinbaum have been past participants in lawsuits on the separation of church and state. Those included a lawsuit by Weinbaum aimed at removing crosses from the Las Cruces city logo.

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