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Suit demands more school spending by state

SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico doesn’t spend enough to ensure all students receive a sufficient education, as the state’s constitution mandates, according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed the suit on behalf of four families, including three from Albuquerque.

It argues that New Mexico has failed to adequately fund schools and the state’s funding formula doesn’t direct enough money to “at-risk” students – low-income students and those learning English as a second language.

“The constitution specifies clearly that every single school-age child shall be provided with a sufficient and uniform public education,” said Gail Evans, legal director at the Law Center.

The suit lists tests scores indicating many New Mexico school children fail to perform at grade level in reading and math and perform poorly compared with their peers around the country.

Listed as defendants in the suit are the state of New Mexico, the Public Education Department and Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera. PED officials had not yet reviewed the lawsuit as of Thursday afternoon, spokesman Larry Behrens said in an email.

“However, we know (the Gov. Susana Martinez) administration has signed budgets that increase education spending to the highest levels in state history,” Behrens wrote.

Education spending in New Mexico this year, $2.56 billion, and next year, $2.73 billion, will surpass the previous high of $2.49 billion in 2008, according to the Legislative Fiance Committee.

New Mexico will spend $7,272 per student this year through the funding formula, compared with $7,180 in 2008, according to the LFC. The state’s funding formula distributes dollars on a per-pupil basis. More money is given for students who are at-risk or disabled.

The suit, however, argues funding is still inadequate. It cites a 2008 study by the American Institute for Research that found New Mexico should increase education funding by 14.5 percent.

Rep. Rick Miera, D-Albuquerque, agrees the state should spend more on education.

“Where do we get (the money) from has always been the question,” he said. Miera added the suit could force lawmakers to more seriously consider tapping the New Mexico Land Grant Permanent Fund for education spending. Money in the fund comes from lease fees collected for use of state land.

That would be a tough sell with the governor. The Martinez administration has shown no interest in directing money from the $13 billion fund toward early childhood education, as its advocates have lobbied.

Skandera said in February, “We don’t believe in raiding our children’s savings account.”

Analyses differ on whether the fund would continue to grow by rates higher than inflation even if more money were to be diverted from the fund, according to Journal archives.

The suit itself doesn’t prescribe a minimum dollar amount that should be spent on education, nor a funding source, Evans said. It’s not the court’s role to do that, she said, but it is the court’s role to point out when the state isn’t meeting a constitutional requirement.

While Miera agrees with spending more on education, he defended the funding formula, saying it’s fair. He also noted lawmakers passed a bill this year that will allocate more money for at-risk students in 2016.

The suit also argues “below-the-line” funding – money not distributed on a per-pupil basis, which represents 3.4 percent of next year’s education spending – undermines the state’s guarantee of a “uniform system of education.”