Melanie McNett

The education clause of the New Mexico Constitution guarantees a “uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age…” NM Const. Art. XII, § 1. This charges the state’s legislative and executive branches with creating and enforcing laws that promote adequate public schooling for children throughout the state. Until recently, the clause had never been interpreted to determine what “uniform” and “sufficient” schooling actually entails, or whether that right is being adequately fulfilled. That changed in 2014 when the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit alleging that the state has been neglecting this constitutional obligation, particularly with respect to students who are low-income, Native American, English language learners, or students with disabilities. Citing student outcomes such as low reading and math proficiencies and low graduation rates, the civil rights groups argued that unconstitutional disparities between school districts can be attributed to inadequate programming, services, staffing, and funding.

After a lengthy trial, a judge for the First Judicial District Court held for the plaintiffs, finding that the education clause of the state constitution is not being met within the state’s current system. Holding that New Mexico children have a right to be college and career ready, which includes quality pre-K and linguistically and culturally appropriate educational programming and services, the judge ordered that the state take “immediate steps” to rectify these problems. Additionally, the court emphasized that a lack of funding is not an excuse for neglecting students who are low-income, Native American, English language learners, or students with disabilities. Since then, New Mexico public schools have received a 17% funding increase from the legislature to address these deficiencies. Attorneys for the plaintiffs have expressed concerns over the state’s plan to use the money toward pay raises for teachers and administrators, rather toward services and programming for students. In any case, this landmark victory is driving important conversations about the quality of education across the state and will likely have lasting effects on New Mexico’s students.