A New Mexico trial court recently found that the state has been failing in its constitutional duty to ensure that all students receive an adequate education. The court ordered the state to come up with a fix by next April. In practical terms, any fix will mean more money for poor school districts, more oversight to ensure uniform opportunities across the state and more education services for at-risk students.
On most facts, the decision seems obvious. New Mexico’s schools are among the lowest funded in the nation. And those relatively meager funds are not shared evenly among districts, either. Students in higher poverty schools in New Mexico often receive substantially less money than students in other schools. A school funding fairness report grades New Mexico’s system as a “D.” In other words, New Mexico needs to spend more money on all of its schools and a lot more money on its high poverty schools. This new court decision orders the state to do just that.
The problem is that New Mexico is not a wealthy state. Considering the state’s overall poverty, local government actually tries pretty hard to fund education with what it has. On this measure of education funding effort, New Mexico ranks in the top 15 in the nation. This led the state to defend its failures by arguing that it lacked the funding to deliver an adequate education.
The court wouldn’t hear it. It offered the textbook response: Fiscal constraints are not an excuse for depriving individuals of their constitutional rights. A “sufficient education is a right protected by the New Mexico Constitution” and it is the state’s “paramount duty” to provide it, the court’s decision states. states. This means education is “entitled to priority in funding” and all other competing state programs are “secondary” at best, the court ruled. In short, fully funding the constitutionally required level of education is non-negotiable.
New Mexico can do better. Other poor states like South Carolina, Arkansas, West Virginia and Mississippi choose to spend more of their overall wealth on education than New Mexico does. And they all, including New Mexico, could stand to spend more. After adjusting for inflation, New Mexico, for instance, spent 11.7 percent less per pupil in the 2015-16 school year than it did in 2008 before the Recession set in. Yet, the state is bringing in almost 50 percent more in total tax revenues now than it did in 2008. State and local government are simply choosing to spend those revenues elsewhere.
Shrinking federal oversight
This sad set of facts also ought to serve as a wake-up call to policymakers regarding the federal role in education. First, federal education appropriations have been relatively flat for the past decade. So poor states aren’t getting much help from the federal government. Second, federal oversight of state inequalities and failures is shrinking.
In 2015, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act. The overarching premise of the act was that the federal government has been overreaching in education and its was time to return discretion to the states. In 2016, President Donald J. Trump campaigned on the notion that we should minimize the federal role in education even more. In 2017, he appointed a secretary of education who consistently argues we must shrink the federal footprint in education.
The sad story in New Mexico and other states is that many states can’t be trusted. Left to their own devices, state legislatures have shown a strong propensity to provide unequal and underfunded educational opportunities. It has traditionally only been the federal government that has tempered that instinct.
Without a strong federal role in education, state courts often stand as the final bulwark for student’s rights. New Mexico just added its name to the list of state court systems that continue to demand that states live up to their constitutional duty in education. The problem is that there are a lot of states still not on that list.