New Lawsuit Questions Sufficiency of New Mexico Education Funding

by Save Our Schools Los Alamos

We’ve written 16 columns over the past six months with the intentions of both learning about K-12 funding in New Mexico, and sharing that information with the community. You can read the columns at our website http://soslosalamos.com; or by searching the LA Daily Post archives.

We started this work with the view that the state of New Mexico, which controls 70% of K-12 funding in Los Alamos and which actually caps local spending on education, has been systemically underfunding K-12 education; and has not been meeting the spirit of its requirement under Article XII, Section 1 of the New Mexico Constitution to provide “a uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age in the state …”.  Statewide test scores and other widely publicized metrics bear out this concern.

In other states with similar constitutional requirements for “uniform and sufficient” education, parents have tried to use the courts to require the state to spend more by arguing that status quo spending was not “sufficient”.  Based on our review of those cases in other states, we’ve thought that the odds of someone winning a legal battle against a state on these grounds were a long shot.

Some courts in other states have ruled that the meaning of “uniform” and “sufficient” is necessarily subjective; and that the subjective judgment on those matters properly lies with the Legislature and Governor; and that the courts should not impose their own subjective judgment over the subjective judgment of the elected officials who are directly accountable to the citizenry through the ballot box.

The members of SOSLA would like to see the entire state-wide funding pie for K-12 education increased as part of an effort to address New Mexico’s bottom tier standing in many key education metrics; but we’re very skeptical about the prospects for doing that, so we’ve been focused on keeping our schools in Los Alamos excellent, or at least good enough so that Los Alamos remains a good choice for the education-focused members of our highly mobile workforce.

Tactically, we’ve argued that the most viable path to better school funding for us here in Los Alamos is through the loosening of restrictions on local supplements to school spending that have been administratively imposed by the New Mexico Public Education Department (NMPED) without constitutional or statutory mandate.  Such action by NMPED would allow our community the “home rule” right to decide on how much should be spent on education here, to meet community expectations.  This idea of “home rule” would hold for any community in New Mexico, and there are many other communities in our State that want better schools; communities that are able and willing to pay for them.

In a new twist this week, a group of parents from Albuquerque and Gallup, together with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, have taken an approach that’s different from ours.  They’ve sued the State claiming that state funding for education is insufficient and that the distribution of funds is not uniform.  Their lawsuit is posted at:  http://www.scribd.com/doc/213574124/Complaint-FINAL.

Sufficiency of Funding

There is no definition of what a “sufficient” education is.  Since 1974, the state of New Mexico has collected and redistributed state and local funding for K-12 education to local school districts through the State Equalization Guarantee (SEG) formula, a mechanism designed to promote a “fair” distribution of available funds. 

In 2006, the New Mexico State Legislature and Governor sponsored a Funding Formula Study Task Force which hired the American Institute for Research to conduct a study assessing overall education funding levels and the efficacy of the SEG as a method for distributing resources. 

The study’s final report found that the State of New Mexico needed to increase state funding for K-12 education by 14.5% in order to provide a “sufficient” education.  It also recommended modifications to the SEG to channel more K-12 education funds to children from low income households and students identified as English Language Learners (ELLs).  The report is available at:  http://www.air.org/project/new-mexico-public-funding-formula.

In 2008 and 2009, the New Mexico House of Representatives passed legislation to implement the findings of Funding Formula Study Task Force, but the measure was never brought to a vote by the New Mexico Senate, and died.

According to the lawsuit filed this week, in the 1986-1987 school year K-12 education funding received 51.6% of New Mexico’s recurring state revenues.  In the 2014-2015 budget, endorsed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor just this month, K-12 education accounts for 44.3% of the state budget.  When adjusted for inflation, the 2014-2015 budget restored New Mexico K-12 education funding to its 2008 level; so the plaintiffs have a good argument that funding has been reduced.

The plaintiffs argue that student performance in standardized tests and other metrics are key indicators of the “sufficiency” of education.  Students in Los Alamos finished taking the New Mexico Standards Based Assessments (SBA) just this week.  Another key standardized test is the National Achievement Educational Performance Test (NAEP), a nationally recognized benchmark of education achievement. 

Compared to other states, the children of New Mexico are scoring at the very bottom in many of these measures .  As examples, New Mexico is tied with Mississippi for the lowest rank nationally for 4th grade reading achievement scores.  In 2013, only 21% of New Mexico 4th graders could read at or above grade level.  NAEP results in 2013 for New Mexico 4th grade students in math showed only 31% at grade level, ahead of only Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi.  Scores for New Mexico’s 8th grade students were similar, and longitudinally NAEP results from prior years are similar to the 2013 results.

The lawsuit argues that the State of New Mexico has decreased its support of K-12 funding over the past several decades, points out the clear empirical evidence that the educational system in New Mexico is failing statewide, and argues that those two factors together amount to a failure by the state to meet the constitutional requirement for sufficiency.

We think the plaintiffs have an excellent social and political argument.  Sadly, we’re not sure they have a compelling legal argument, simply because the standard is a subjective one.

A Uniform Education

While sufficiency of education is an amorphous concept, the notion of uniformity is opaque.  Uniformity could mean a number of things.  On one level, uniformity could mean that all school districts use a common curriculum, hire instructional staff who meet licensing standards, and have roughly comparable class sizes and access to technology, and that schools that spend and provide much more than the minimum standard are still structurally uniform. 

Or, the standard of uniformity could relate to system inputs — an equal amount of spending in dollars per student.  This approach would be easy administratively, and vastly simpler than the current approach.

Or, the standard of uniformity could relate to system outputs — comparable hours of qualified instruction per student, perhaps weighted by student-teacher ratio.  This approach would also be fairly straightforward to administer, and still be much simpler than the current system.

Or, the standard of uniformity could relate to system outcomes — comparable graduation rates, comparable test scores, comparable rates of admission for graduates to universities of comparable quality, and comparable long-term employment and income profiles. In this approach dollars would flow from school systems with higher performing students to school systems with lower performing schools until an equilibrium of outcomes was achieved.  This approach is complicated by research that indicates that issues like parental involvement, discipline, crime, substance abuse, nutrition and other factors are as important or more important to educational outcomes than school spending.  

To further complicate the question, some courts in other states have ruled that uniformity relates to a minimum standard that must be met but which can be exceeded.  Different courts in other states have ruled that uniformity involves a tightly grouped distribution of spending across districts.

While New Mexico’s current approach strives to be fair, it would be hard to argue that it is uniform.  As mentioned earlier, the SEG was created in 1974 to enable children from poorer communities to enjoy the same educational opportunities as children from wealthier communities.

The formula awards increased funding for a number of factors, but there are four main drivers.  More funding flows to schools with (1) a high number of students living in poverty, (2) a high number of students with English as a second language, (3) a highly transient student body, and (4) a high proportion of students requiring special education.

SOSLA completely agrees that schools with concentrations of students facing the challenges identified above must receive more financial support than less-challenged schools.  But, we believe this approach reflects a highly-discrete “fair” approach to funding, rather than a “uniform” approach.  It’s a discrete approach based not on funding tied to uniform inputs, outputs, or outcomes; but on some judgment-based sense of need which is cobbled into the formula. 

Living in Los Alamos, a community with the third highest median household income in the United States ($112,115; U.S. Census 2012), and dining in Santa Fe, it’s easy to forget about New Mexico’s challenges.  In 2012, according to Kids Count Data Center, 29 percent of children aged 18 or younger lived in “families in poverty”, with family incomes below $23,283.

According to the lawsuit filed this week, 67 percent of all of New Mexico’s students are living in low income households; a child poverty rate surpassed only by Mississippi.  The lawsuit reports that in 81 of 89 New Mexico school districts, over half the students qualify for federally-subsidized free or reduced lunch.  

The SEG formula reflects an understanding that it costs more to provide children with challenges a decent educational opportunity.  We agree, and we support a weighted approach as sound and compassionate social policy, but it’s hard to see the uniformity in it.

The lawsuit filed this week seeks to increase the weighting of these factors to drive a larger slice of the education funding pie to challenged schools, arguing for an even more highly discrete funding approach under the banner of uniformity.  The lawsuit argues that the one variable controlled by the state, funding, should be adjusted until the non-uniform outcomes, represented by test scores, converge.

We agree that challenged students in New Mexico need more help.  It’s not clear to us that the good arguments for a yet more-discrete educational funding approach rest easily on a foundation of uniformity.

The Implications for Los Alamos

For the reasons discussed above, we have doubts about the viability of the approach taken by the lawsuit, but it is possible that the courts could accept some or all of the plaintiff’s arguments.  If that happens, there will be impacts on the Los Alamos Public Schools.  Should the Courts decide in favor of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit on both their “sufficient” and “uniform” issues, it could mean both a substantial increase to overall state K-12 funding (which would benefit Los Alamos Public Schools), and an adjustment of the distribution formula (which would take back some or all of that benefit, or take back even more). 

A decision upholding only a part of the argument could either benefit our schools or cost our schools, depending on the specifics of the decision. 

Failure of the lawsuit would leave us and New Mexico’s neediest children where we all are today.

More about Los Alamos

Those of you who raised children and educated them in the Los Alamos public schools in prior decades are probably wondering what has changed to make funding such a problem for today’s generation.

Today’s article explained the issue with state funding and how it has evolved since 1974.  The state, through legislative action, took control of the majority of K-12 education funding and Los Alamos lost its ability to supplement operating expenses with local funds.  The state has decreased funding for K-12 education over the past several decades as a percentage of total state revenues.  The state also has a deep issue with child poverty that influences how state funds are spent.

And perhaps as significantly, federal contributions to K-12 education were 35% of Los Alamos Public Schools operating expenses up until 1997.  At that point, the federal government switched to a flat $8 million subsidy.  In 1997, that accounted for 35% of operating expenses.  Today, it accounts for 22% of operating expenses.

Meanwhile, as funding has diminished, fixed costs have grown at higher rates.  Without increased, or additional, revenue streams, it’s hard to imagine how LAPS will be able to sustain the breadth of academic, enrichment and athletics programs, the class sizes, and teacher compensation that our community has had in the past; and needs for the present and future health of our community.

For more information about Save Our Schools Los Alamos, go to http://soslosalamos.com.

Sources:

http://www.santafenewmexican.com/news/education/new-mexico-sued-over-public-school-financing/article_f413e216-d3cf-5cb0-8fcd-543f789fbb59.html

http://www.sfreporter.com/santafe/blog-5125-lawsuit-against-stat.html

http://www.scribd.com/doc/213574124/Complaint-FINAL

http://ballotpedia.org/Article_XII,_New_Mexico_Constitution

http://www.air.org/project/new-mexico-public-funding-formula

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/statecomparisons/

http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/states/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/13/new-mexico-poverty-rates_n_1881321.html

http://datacenter.kidscount.org/data/tables/43-children-in-poverty#detailed/2/33/false/868,867,133,38,35/any/321,322

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