New Mexico Supreme Court Rejects Public School Funds for Private Schools

On November 12, 2015, the New Mexico Supreme Court decided Moses v. Skandera and took a definitive stand against the diversion of public school funds for use in private schools. The decision is a big win for the state’s nearly 340,000 public school children, and could create shockwaves that resonate here in Nevada.

New Mexico parents challenged the state’s Instructional Material Law (IML), which gave the New Mexico Public Education Department the authority to lend approved textbooks and other educational media to any student attending public school or a state-approved private or religious school.

According to the IML, the Legislature appropriated money into an instructional material fund, and private and religious schools were allocated part of that appropriation based on student enrollment. These funds could be used to purchase approved textbooks and other materials, but schools could also expend up to half of the funds on non-approved materials, provided the materials were not religious in nature. The purchased materials were then loaned to students.

The New Mexico Constitution (Art. XII, Section 3) was meant to protect proceeds designated for “educational purposes,” prohibiting the use of these funds for private or religious schools. The New Mexico Supreme Court found that IML violated the plain meaning and history of this clause. The Court closely considered what the constitutional framers intended at the turn of the century when they drafted the state constitution and the results from other state court decisions across the country. In addition to siding with the majority of other state courts with similar constitutional language, the Court noted,

“[T]he New Mexico Constitutional Convention was not willing to navigate the unclear line between secular and sectarian education, or the unclear line between direct and indirect support to other than public schools.”

Nevadans should take notice of Moses v. Skandera. Our state is currently putting into place a voucher program that diverts public funds designated for public schools into private and religious schools. The Nevada Constitution has similar constitutional language to New Mexico. Though Nevada courts are not bound by New Mexico’s decision, judges typically look to other states, especially states with similar history and constitutional language, for guidance. This case provides hope that the controversial Education Savings Account program will be stopped before it harms public school children–much like New Mexico’s newly defunct IML.