Private school group to challenge court ruling

Joshua Kellogg
Classmates react as eighth-grader Angelica Sabol, center, unwraps an Easter egg April 1 at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Farmington. Sacred Heart is one of the schools in New Mexico that will be affected by a recent state Supreme Court ruling that forbids the use of public money to purchase textbooks for private schools.

FARMINGTON – The New Mexico Association of Non-Public Schools plans to file a challenge against a New Mexico Supreme Court decision that declares that using public funds to pay for textbooks for private schools is unconstitutional.

John Foreman, the executive director of NMANS and the superintendent for Mesilla Valley Christian Schools in Las Cruces, said Wednesday the organization is pursuing a rehearing of the decision written by Judge Edward Chavez on Nov. 12.

“In a nutshell, NMANS, of course, disagrees with this,” Foreman said.

Chavez wrote in the decision that the Instructional Material Law adopted in 1978 violates Article XII, Section 3 of the New Mexico Constitution, which prohibits money from taxpayers going to private schools.

“No part of the proceeds arising from the sale or disposal of any lands granted to the state by Congress, or any other funds appropriated, levied or collected for educational purposes, shall be used for the support of any sectarian, denominational or private school, college or university,” Chavez wrote.

The law granted the New Mexico Public Education Department’s Instructional Material Bureau the authority to provide private schools with a certain percentage of instructional materials funds based on enrollment.

Foreman said it would be very hard to overturn a high court ruling, especially when the five judges voted unanimously.

“We realize what we are doing is a long shot, but we feel like we have to try,” Foreman said.

First-grader Isabella Burnham celebrates April 1 during an egg drop event at Sacred Heart Catholic School in Farmington.

The state education department is not planning to appeal or protest the ruling, according to spokesperson Aimee Barabe.

“The department will review and comply with the court's decision to overturn the law that's been on the books for more than 50 years,” Barabe said in an email.

Barabe said about $1.06 million had been awarded to 109 private schools this year to purchase textbooks. That amount was a decline from the $1.37 million awarded last school year.

NMANS — which represents about 220 private schools in New Mexico — disagreed with several points of the court’s decision.

In regard to one of those points, Foreman said he believes the language in Article XII, Section 3 of the state Constitution was not put in to prevent religious influence in schools. He said the language references a failed federal constitutional amendment called the Blaine Amendment by Congressman James Blaine in 1875. That failed amendment wanted to prohibit the use of government funds for schools affiliated with religious organizations in the late 1800s.

Foreman said it was an anti-Catholic move to reinforce Protestant Christianity in schools.

“The idea that Blaine or (former President Ulysses S. Grant) did not want religion in schools was totally inaccurate,” Foreman said. “They wanted to make it Protestant Christianity and not Catholic Christianity.”

The loss of funding could be an issue for the 109 private schools in the state and create budget deficits for schools that depend on the funding, Jeanette Suter, superintendent of schools for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Gallup, said.

“If we know in January we won’t have this money, we have to look for additional sources of revenue,” Suter said.

Suter oversees and advises 13 Catholic private schools, nine of which are in New Mexico, including Sacred Heart Catholic School here.

She said the decision made by the state Supreme Court was correct and was grounded in the wording of the Constitution, but she brought up how the state Legislature has renewed the Instruction Material Law multiple times since it was enacted.

“Our legislation and voters support it despite the Constitution not supporting it,” Suter said.

Tuition fees at private schools might be increased to compensate for the loss of revenue, and that could drive some parents to opt for public schools, she said.

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627.