NM Supreme Court reconsiders textbook funding for private schools

Students at private New Mexican schools who could benefit from public funding of textbooks. Credit: Becket.
Students at private New Mexican schools who could benefit from public funding of textbooks. Credit: Becket.

.- A 2017 U.S. Supreme Court decision has given new life to New Mexico backers of state funding for private school textbooks, as their case returns to the state Supreme Court.

“Ending the textbook lending program will disproportionately hurt low-income and minority children, at a time when they need access to a quality education more than ever,” Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, said May 7. “We should be investing in kids’ futures, not crippling their ability to gain a quality education.”

The Becket law group, working on behalf of the New Mexico Association of Nonpublic Schools, has challenged a court decision that ended non-public school students’ participation in an 80-year-old textbook lending program for state-approved textbooks and other educational material.

“A science textbook is a science textbook no matter whose shelf it’s on,” Baxter said, arguing that siding with the school would “stop discriminating” and “give all kids equal access to the best educational opportunities.”

In 2011, two parents challenged the program on the grounds the state constitution bars education funds from being used “for the support of any sectarian, denominational or private school, college or university,” language known as a Blaine Amendment. A 2015 New Mexico Supreme Court decision, Moses v. Ruszkowski, sided with the parents and ended nonpublic school students’ participation.

Becket has challenged the ruling’s reliance on the Blaine Amendment. The law group claimed the 19th century law was “originally designed to disadvantage New Mexico’s native Catholic citizens” and “was all about anti-Catholic animus.”

Such amendments have been used “to keep religious organizations from participating in neutral, generally applicable government programs on the same terms as everyone else,” the legal group charged. It cited efforts in Oklahoma to use a Blaine Amendment to block the use of scholarships for learning-disabled children attending religious schools.

Frank Susman, a Santa Fe attorney who represents the parents, said their case was backed by the Blaine Amendment and at least two other constitutional amendments which he said bar appropriations for private entities, whether schools or students.

“They all absolutely ban this type of aid,” Susman said in court May 7, the Santa Fe New Mexican reports.

The U.S. Supreme Court has returned the 2015 decision to the New Mexico Supreme Court to reconsider in light of its own 2017 ruling in Trinity Lutheran v. Comer. That 7-2 decision sided with a Christian preschool which had been denied a Missouri state grant for an effort to improve playground safety because it was associated with a church.

The United States' highest court ruled that it was wrong to deny a church a public benefit that was otherwise available only because of its religious status.

New Mexico’s Public Education Department is also challenging the state court’s ruling, though the department has not provided funding for private school textbooks since the decision. The ruling relates to over $1 million in federal funds the state receives each year through the U.S. Mineral Leasing Act.

Tags: Catholic Schools, Catholic News, First Amendment, New Mexico, Blaine Amendment, Becket