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Education suits could upend school funding

It’s a shame that school districts have had to file a lawsuit to force the state to fund education adequately. But that’s exactly what is happening.

Last week, the Santa Fe Public Schools joined forces with the Gallup-McKinley County and Moriarty-Edgewood districts to claim that current funding levels violate the New Mexico Constitution.

The lawsuit is on top of one already filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, essentially saying the same thing.

Together, these lawsuits could upend school funding in New Mexico. There are two big issues in the suits.

One claim is whether schools across the state are receiving adequate funding, as required in the New Mexico Constitution. A study released in 2008 estimated that New Mexico was underfunding education by $330 million every year (an increase of 14.5 percent in spending will be needed to reach adequacy). Currently, the state spends some 45 percent of its $6.2 billion annual budget on education.

The examination of school funding was paid for by the Funding Formula Study Task Force, a group appointed by the Legislature and governor, and conducted by the American Institute for Research.

There’s more than just overall funding being debated, though. The second issue is just how the money is apportioned.

New Mexico, with its complex funding formula, has a system designed to equalize the money handed out across the state so that more affluent cities can’t spend more on operating schools. The funding formula takes various factors into account to come up with the unit value per student through its State Equalization Guarantee.

What districts are arguing in this suit is that not only is education being funded inadequately, but also that the money is not being distributed fairly, either.

The plaintiffs don’t want any more time to be wasted, and want immediate relief — should they prevail — in the form of a new budget and spending plan before the next legislative session starts in mid-January. This potentially could eat up new revenue the state might be bringing in.

Justice does not always move swiftly, but in this case, the stakes are so high that we trust the judges involved can expedite the process.

The 2008 study made a strong case that we are not spending enough.

The state Legislature failed to adjust the budget, and neither Gov. Bill Richardson, in his last years in office, nor Gov. Susana Martinez, in her first term, followed through on the report’s recommendation. Perhaps the courts can step up to ensure children receive the education they deserve and are guaranteed in the New Mexico Constitution.

— The Santa Fe New Mexican