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Private school funding case put on hold

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. Supreme Court has held off deciding the fate of a local case involving state funding for private school textbooks.

The justices will likely hear a similar appeal from Missouri this term before turning to New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools v. Moses.

“It is still in the pipeline, but it will take some time,” said John Foreman, NMANS executive director and superintendent of Mesilla Valley Christian Schools in Las Cruces. “Our legal team is watching it.”

The case centers on a constitutional question: Can the state provide money to cover textbooks for private schools, both secular and religious?

In November, the New Mexico Supreme Court unanimously struck down the provision, overturning two lower court rulings.

“A public school under the control of the state can directly receive funds, while a private school not under the exclusive control of the state can not receive either direct or indirect support,” Supreme Court justice Edward Chávez wrote in the ruling.

The decision pulled $1.4 million from over 100 private schools across New Mexico.

NMANS appealed to the Supreme Court, then pushed for a delay pending the outcome in the Missouri case, Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley, a fight over federal funding for playground resurfacing at a church preschool.

Frank Susman, attorney for the plaintiffs challenging the textbook law, thinks the cases are different and should not have been lumped together.

“We’ll wait and see what happens,” he said.

In the meantime, New Mexico’s private schools will have to pay for their own materials.

Before the New Mexico Supreme Court’s ruling, the state had covered private school textbooks for nearly 30 years using federal mineral leases money. Legally, the schools could not use the funding for religious materials.

Two New Mexico parents, Cathy Moses of Santa Fe and Paul Weinbaum of Las Cruces, decided to fight the law in 2011, arguing that public support for parochial schools effectively forces taxpayers to follow religious dictates.

Foreman said the funding loss has hurt families.

“You go to schools in some of the smaller communities and it really impacts them a lot,” he said. “They have to cut back – they have to pull away a program or not have a teacher’s aide in the classroom with the kids or cut back on tutoring. They have to cut back on something because now they have to go out and spend that money on textbooks.”