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Watchdog: Follow the Money

New Mexico sued over public-school financing

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Education,Associated Press,Watchdog,Watchdog Blog,New Mexico,Follow the Money

SANTA FE, N.M. — Parents of public school students have sued the state to increase funding for education and target more assistance to disadvantaged students who are living in poverty or learning English.

The lawsuit was announced Thursday by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which filed the case a day earlier with a Gallup lawyer on behalf of parents of students in the Albuquerque and Gallup-McKinley school districts.

The lawsuit contends the state is inadequately funding schools in violation of the New Mexico Constitution's requirement to provide an equitable and "sufficient" education for all children.

If the lawsuit is successful, the state could be forced to come up with hundreds of millions of tax dollars for schools. A study in 2008 concluded that New Mexico was underfunding schools by as much as 15 percent or more than $300 million at the time.

"Public school education in New Mexico is in crisis," the lawsuit said. "New Mexico's students rank at the very bottom in the country in educational achievement."

The Public Education Department, which is under the control of Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, was named as the defendant.

Larry Behrens, a spokesman for the department, said the agency hadn't seen the lawsuit and couldn't comment on it.

But Behrens said the governor has signed budgets approved by the Legislature to increase spending on public schools since taking office in 2011.

"During that time student achievement results, including graduation rates among our Native American students, have increased significantly," Behrens said in a statement. "We absolutely know every student in our state has potential for greatness and the fight to reform our schools is a testament to our faith in New Mexico's children."

Martinez, who is seeking re-election this year, has battled with Democrats in the Legislature and educational unions over her school initiatives, including a proposal to hold back third-graders who can't adequately read.

New Mexico is spending nearly $2.6 billion on schools this year.

But the lawsuit, which was filed in district court in Gallup, said public schools' share of the budget has declined over the past 30 years while student performance on standards-based tests has lagged behind children in most other states.

New Mexico tied with Mississippi in 2013 for the lowest ranking for the portion of 4th-graders who couldn't read proficiently, according to the lawsuit.

New Mexico provides most of the money for public school operations, unlike some other states that rely on local communities to help finance their schools. New Mexico distributes most of its aid to the state's 89 school districts through a formula that's supposed to equalize funding and account for differences in the cost of educating various students, including those with learning disabilities.

Martinez has recently pushed to allocate more money outside of the school-finance formula for educational programs that are under the control of the department and her administration. The lawsuit said that "below the line funding" violates the constitution's mandate for equitable school financing.

Bob Rosebrough, a former Gallup mayor who helped bring the lawsuit, said in an interview that it would have been unnecessary to sue the state had the Legislature approved and financed an overhaul of the school-funding formula as recommended by a bipartisan task force in 2008.

"New Mexico has one of the largest percentages of at-risk students in the nation, and together with Mississippi we are at bottom of the list in terms of the amount of resources and funding that we devote to the education of at-risk children," Rosebrough said.

About two-thirds of students live in low-income families, according to the lawsuit. For nearly 16 percent of students, English is not their primary language and they aren't proficient in it.

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