In the early 1970s, plaintiffs filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of New Mexico’s education finance system. This equity lawsuit alleged that expenditures varied unconstitutionally depending on local school districts’ wealth. The parties reached a settlement before trial when New Mexico leaders shifted funding for school operations to the state level in order to provide essentially equal resources to each district. The 1974 Public School Finance Act resulted in the state funding over 80% of education costs.
Zuni School District v. State
Over the years, however, facilities in many low-property-wealth school districts deteriorated. In 1998, a number of these districts brought a 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. After the Public School Finance Act was implemented, local districts still bore primary responsibility for capital funding. The trial court ordered the state to “establish and implement a uniform funding system for capital improvements . . . and for correcting existing past inequities.”
At the end of 2001, a proposal to fund a $1.2 billion capital program was defeated by a filibuster. Instead, the state settled on a $400 million capital program and created a new capital funding system intended to establish a standards-based adequacy level for facilities in all districts.
In subsequent years, the new capital funding system failed to establish an adequate and uniform level of funding. In 2006, $90 million of extra funding was directed to capital projects in high-growth areas, mainly Albuquerque’s West Side. Plaintiffs’ attorneys went to court in March 2006 to argue that the added funding was unfair to smaller districts. The case was vacated in 2008.
Zuni Public School District v. Department of Education
In Zuni Public School District v. Department of Education, a group of school districts filed suit to prohibit the state from offsetting its funding of districts by the amount of federal impact aid payments made to those districts. All of the school districts in the suit were located on federal and tribal lands in predominantly Native American areas with meager property tax bases, qualifying them for federal impact aid. On April 27, 2007, the United States Supreme Court ruled that New Mexico was allowed to deduct federal impact aid from New Mexico school districts when allocating state aid.
Yazzie and Martinez
Two separate groups of parents of educationally disadvantaged, Latino and Native American students filed 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 children the “uniform and sufficient education” guaranteed by Art XII §1 of the state constitution, and one suit 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, criticizes funding mechanisms in the state’s current education system, which has 24 separate components to its foundation funding formula, and highlights a 2008 American Institute for Research cost analysis that concluded that operational expenses were underfunded by approximately $350 million deficit in operational expenses. The second suit, Martinez v. State of New Mexico, brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, challenges the state’s “punitive” teacher evaluation system. In New Mexico, teacher evaluations are based 50% on student performance as assessed through student test scores and school rankings. According to the plaintiffs in Martinez, 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 also 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. In denying the state’s motion to dismiss, the court explicitly affirmed that education is a fundamental right in New Mexico.
Subsequently, the Martinez and Yazzie cases were consolidated. After two months of testimony by nearly 80 witnesses, trial in these consolidated cases concluded in August 2017.
In July 2018, New Mexico District Court Judge Sarah M. Singleton ruled that the state’s education finance system violated the Education Clause, the Equal Protection Clause and the Due Process Clause of the state constitution (Martinez v. State of New Mexico). The judge issued a declaratory judgment that gave the state until April 15, 2019, to take “immediate steps to ensure that New Mexico schools have the resources necessary to give at-risk students the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education that prepares them for college and career.” The Court retained jurisdiction and indicated that injunctive relief would be forthcoming if the legislature did not provide appropriate reforms by the deadline date.
Judge Singleton’s decision reviewed prior decisions of other state courts in adequacy and equity cases and determined that the appropriate standard for reviewing the state’s compliance with constitutional requirements should be whether the preponderance of evidence shows a rational relationship to the constitutional standard of providing all schoolchildren an adequate education. The Court also defined “at risk” students to include all students who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners, students with disabilities and Native American students. She found that the vast majority of students in New Mexico are “at risk,” given that 71.6% of students in New Mexico are from low-income families and substantial numbers of students also fit into the other categories.
The Court invoked the “inputs/outputs” analytical framework utilized by the New York Court of Appeals in CFE v. State of New York, 801 N.E. 2d 326 (2003), holding that among other things, instructional materials, class sizes, technology, and teacher quality were inadequate. The Court’s analysis also included a number of findings and holdings that went beyond previous precedents, including the following:
- Pre-school, after-school and summer school programs have been shown to provide proper supports for at risk students;
- A “value-added” teacher evaluation system that considers student outcomes in assessing teacher competence “penalizes teachers for working in high needs schools [and] contributes to the problem;”
- In assessing student achievement outputs, more than nominal growth must be shown
- Students needing college remediation are not college ready;
- A 10% extra weighting for at risk students in the funding formula is not acceptable;
- The state education department is responsible for monitoring spending by school districts to ensure both that they are using these funds as required to provide educational opportunities for at-risk students, and that they are using the funds effectively and efficiently.
Responding to the court order, in April 2019, New Mexico’s governor and legislature agreed on a package of reforms that will increase teacher salaries, extend instructional time at public schools and boost spending on low-income students. However, plaintiff attorneys do not think that these measures are sufficient to remedy the problems outlined in the court decision.
In October, 2019, plaintiffs filed compliance motions with the Court that allege that school districts lack sufficient funds to make the extensive programmatic changes required by the Court’s order to benefit at risk, students, Native American students, students with disabilities and English language learners because the lion’s share of these funds have been used to increase salaries of existing teachers, They also claimed that the State has no plan in effect for complying with the Order.
First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson denied the State’s motion to dismiss in July 2020. Judge Wilson, in his first decision since being assigned to the case, stated that the state, by its own admission, is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide a sufficient education to all students:
The state cannot be deemed to have complied with this court’s order until it shows that the necessary programs and reforms are being provided to all at risk students to ensure that they have the opportunity to be college and career ready. There is a lack of evidence in this case that the defendants have substantially satisfied this court’s express orders regarding all at risk students. The court’s injunction requires comprehensive educational reform that demonstrates substantial improvement of student outcomes so that students are actually college and career ready.
The judge also stated that “the court will maintain jurisdiction in this case until defendants have actually overhauled the system and complied with the constitutional requirements.”
Responding to the students’ remote learning needs during the Covid crisis, in April, 2021, Judge Wilson ordered the state to provide computers and high-speed internet access to the thousands of “at-risk” students who lack these necessary tools to access remote learning now and post pandemic.
At the hearing, the court ruled that “defendants must comply with their duty to provide an adequate education and may not conserve financial resources at the expense of our constitution.”
Judge Wilson added, “Children who are lacking access to internet and technology for remote learning are not getting much of an education, if at all, let alone one that is sufficient to make them college and career ready.”
The Court held that the state must immediately:
- Determine which at-risk students and their teachers do not have a dedicated digital device and immediately provide one or ensure that one is provided to each of these students and their teachers.
- Determine which at-risk students do not have access to high-speed internet that will allow them to work from home and immediately provide them with access to a high-speed service and when necessary, transportation to access it.
- Provide school districts with funding for sufficient qualified IT staff to support and maintain digital devices, cellular hotspots, and community Wi-Fi locations, and other remote learning needs.
According to the Yazzie plaintiffs, an estimated 23% of the New Mexico population lacks broadband internet service and an estimated 80% of Native Americans living on tribal lands in the state do not have internet services.
Judge Wilson also granted the Martinez lawyers’ motion to conduct discovery in order to determine what New Mexico has done since the 2018 ruling. He denied, however, the Yazzie plaintiffs’ request that the state develop a specific compliance plan, but noted that he might consider such an order in the future.
Zuni and Gallup-McKinley County case
In December, 2020, a state district court judge ruled in a suit brought by the Zuni and Gallup-McKinley County school districts that New Mexico’s current system for funding capital projects is unconstitutional and ordered state officials to reform the system.
Judge Louis E. DePauli Jr., of the State’s 11th Judicial District Court held that:
The trial evidence established that property-wealthy districts can spend millions and millions of dollars to build physical facilities over and above the (Public School Capital Outlay Act) adequacy standards for physical facilities that property-poor districts can only dream about, all the while bypassing the utterly complex and tortuous process of applying for and receiving ‘grant assistance…
The Court also held that the system is not ‘uniform’ as intended because the funding scheme, being directly tied to the property wealth of the school districts, allows property-wealthy districts, at their discretion, to raise and spend much more money than property-poor districts to build facilities to their satisfaction while paying significantly lower tax rates. According to the Court, “property-poor” districts end up relying on the state to build facilities, but “Plaintiffs have proven by a preponderance of evidence, that the capital outlay funding provided by the state … is insufficient, not only to provide adequate physical facilities, but also an adequate education to the children of the plaintiff’s districts.”
Last Updated January 2021
For information regarding other states with facilities/capital funding cases, see Alaska, Arizona, Colorado and Idaho.