Commentary: New Mexico can’t sue its way to better schools

By: D. Dowd Muska
This article appeared in the New Mexican on June 26, 2017. An article from the opposite perspective appeared in the Albuquerque Journal on June 30. Unlike Muska’s clear-eyed article below, Armas’ article (linked) is full of hope and goals, but little evidence that more money is the path to closing gaps in student achievement.

However well-intentioned, the activists suing the state for failing “to meet its constitutionally mandated responsibility to provide all public-school students the programming and supports necessary to succeed” have a profound misunderstanding of government education’s ability to compensate for severe social pathologies.

The key assumption behind Yazzie v. New Mexico and Martinez v. New Mexico, consolidated into one case and currently before Judge Sarah Singleton, ignores mountains of research. Clear-eyed policy analysts have long understood that greater subsidization of government schools generates little, if any, progress in student ability and achievement.

In the 1960s, sociologist James S. Coleman undertook an enormous, federally funded study of race and education. His conclusion? “Per-pupil expenditures, books in the library, and a host of other facilities and curricular measures show virtually no relation to achievement if the social environment of the school — the educational backgrounds of other students and teachers — is held constant. … Altogether, the sources of inequality of educational opportunity appear to lie first in the home itself and the cultural influences immediately surrounding the home; then they lie in the school’s ineffectiveness to free achievement from the impact of the home.”

Several years later, two Harvard scholars concurred. Mary Jo Bane and Christopher Jencks wrote that the belief that “if schools could equalize people’s cognitive skills this would equalize their bargaining power as adults” was erroneous. Children, they concluded, “seem to be more influenced by what happens at home than by what happens at school,” with “what happens on the streets” and “what they see on television” as additional contributors. “Neither the overall level of resources available to a school,” Bane and Jencks averred, “nor any specific, easily identifiable school policy has a significant effect on students’ cognitive skills.”

In the early 1990s, researchers at the Educational Testing Service studied the connection between non-classroom factors and student achievement. They found that 91 percent of the difference among the performance of the states’ government schools could be explained by five factors, including the amount of time students spent watching television and the presence of two parents in the home.

Closer to home, there is not a morsel of evidence that New Mexico spends an inadequate amount of tax dollars on K-12 schools. Census Bureau data show that the Land of Enchantment surpasses each of its five neighbors in per pupil expenditures on government schools. New Mexico spends a whopping 48 percent more than Utah, where students generally excel. From class-size reduction to expanding preschool, the state has embraced every trendy, expensive fad pushed by the education establishment, with pathetic results. What’s more, the “fairness” and “equalization” financing dreams of the educrat lobby have essentially been attained here — just a few states post a lower shares of school spending covered by local taxpayers.

Sadly, New Mexico is a — perhaps the — national leader in self-destructive behavior. Illegitimacy, domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, refusing to work, welfare dependency, mental illness, substance abuse and DUI carnage are at alarming levels, and have been for decades. Perhaps that’s why the sue-for-better-schools movement prefers to place blame for poor educational outcomes on inadequate taxpayer “investment.”

Lawsuits aren’t the answer to fighting family fragmentation and the chaos it spawns. Work is. Ron Haskins of the liberal Brookings Institution recommends a strategy of “increasing work and reducing welfare use” as the best tool to fight poverty. New Mexico labor bureaucrats’ recent finding that three-quarters of employers with at least one job opening are struggling to find hires — in a state with one of the worst “unemployment” rates in the nation — was irrefutable evidence of a dire problem: Too many of our fellow citizens prefer the dole to the dignity and pride of productive activity.

When making “no judgments” is the rule, not much can be done to address the true cause of underperforming students — and real solutions aren’t explored. Seeking greater school spending through litigation is a dangerous distraction. Our state’s time and resources would be better spent on a discussion of the undeniable role that government plays in perpetuating life decisions that are damaging to individuals, families and society at large.

D. Dowd Muska ( is research director for the Rio Grande Foundation, an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on the principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.

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13 Replies to “Commentary: New Mexico can’t sue its way to better schools”

  1. More money to the schools may not be the key to resolving the education issues, but this is a state with a majority of Hispanics, who prefer the Democratic Party. A significant number of this population trace their families back to Spain, and there is enough cultural diversity here to frustrate our state’s best efforts until the cows come home.

    We Hispanic Democrats voted for Martinez, and we probably helped serve her pizza and booze at her famous holiday party. Between you Yankees and us Mexicans, we have steered the ship of state onto the shoals. It is only in those states that manage their differences with intelligence that government has a prayer of finding a clear path.

    Assume for a moment that a Harvard-educated former lawyer with that dread background as a Spanish Democrat found many of your best ideas worth serious consideration. How can I, personally help broker a deal to get the results we all want?

    How can one person like me actually be of real service for a change, instead of just watching this debacle unfold before us all?

    As you prepare to throw up a finger, perhaps I should warn you that if I am open to your concerns and you convince me of your effectiveness, my words sometimes make good things happen.

    Precisely how can I be of service to the people of this state? Please give it your best shot.

    1. Thanks for your input.

      I’m not sure “you Yankees and us Mexicans” is helpful. We’re all in this together, and the problems we face cut across race, creed, color, language, etc. I don’t think it’s useful to dwell on the past, nor is it desirable to constantly cite our cultural differences. America’s been a diverse place, almost from the start — the folks who were already here, Spanish, WASPs, slaves brought from Africa, Dutch, French, Germans, Scandinavians, Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Russians, Polish, Mexican, Indian, etc.

      If you look at the most self-destructive places in America today, it’s tough to find a common racial/ethnic profile. Appalachia, inner cities of the Midwest and East, the Deep South, New Mexico — not a lot of cultural commonality. Now rural, deeply white sections throughout the country are cratering, with high joblessness, terrible drug dependency, etc. America’s problems weren’t caused by a certain group or groups, and won’t be fixed by focusing on our varied backgrounds.

      Getting “the results we all want” is difficult, because frankly, I’m not sure we all want the same things. Those of us in the libertarian/conservative camp think welfarism is destructive for individuals and society as a whole. It saps/destroys the work ethic, promotes social pathologies, and is unaffordable, particularly in a competitive global economy where the cost of government must be kept to a minimum. Those on the left want welfare programs dramatically expanded — from “universal” preschool to “free” college to single-payer healthcare. Not a lot of common ground there. It’s a zero-sum game, and the side I see as wrong both morally and policy-wise has been winning for the last century or so. We’ve been losing, often quite badly, and the consequences have been enormously destructive.

      As for how you can be of service, I’d ask you to read the work of the Rio Grande Foundation, and compare our findings/analysis to what the left produces. Decide for yourself which has a better grasp of the realities on the ground in the Land of Enchantment, as well as which offers a better slate of reforms that promote human flourishing in New Mexico. If you find our perspective to be more convincing, get involved. Contribute to our work in whatever way you wish — research/writing, attending our events, spreading the word, sending us a check. If politics is more interesting to you than policy, I’d suggest looking at our Freedom Index to determine which state legislators (regardless of party) are committed to liberty, opportunity, and prosperity in New Mexico. Donate, volunteer, etc. to their campaigns.

      Thanks again for your input. There’s certainly a lot of work ahead of us, and if you’d like to help our mission, we’d be grateful for your contribution(s).

  2. Get rid of evil government schools so we are not taught to disrespect or hate each other.

    The bureaucrats, with rare exceptions, are the most critical, disrespectful, hateful people around.

    “A bureaucrat is the most despicable of men, though he is needed as vultures are needed, but one hardly admires vultures whom bureaucrats so strangely resemble. I have yet to meet a bureaucrat who was not petty, dull, almost witless, crafty or stupid, an oppressor or a thief, a holder of little authority in which he delights, as a boy delights in possessing a vicious dog. Who can trust such creatures?” —Marcus Tullius Cicero

    In my family we each had one wonderful teacher and the rest were from bad to evil bureaucrats.

    The only solution to obesity is to close all the government schools yesterday.
    All this obesity help is like putting band aids on cancer. The real cause of most of the obesity is the PTSD caused by the abuse in the government schools by the bureaucrats and until we end that nothing is going to help.
    A really great article about how evil schools are.

    Did you know that we had higher literacy when we had only private schools?
    You might read Poison Drops:
    The report (Poison Drops) to the senate in 1885, said that gov’t
    school states had higher rates of crime, pauperism, mental illness,
    and suicide than private school states, and the longer they had gov’t
    schools the higher the rates were
    I see poison drops is back online:
    Critics of the public schools, particularly in urban ghettos, have
    long argued that many children fail to learn simply because their
    teachers do not expect them to. That proposition is effectively
    documented in a new book called Pygmalion in the Classroom (Holt,
    Rinehart & Winston; $4.95). The book tells of an ingenious experiment
    involving several teachers at a South San Francisco grade school who
    were deceived into believing that certain of their students had been
    spotted as “late bloomers.” Eight months later, the children’s
    academic abilities showed dramatic improvement.
    Friday, Sep. 20, 1968,8816,838752,00.html

  3. We are all in this together, but we don’t all want the same things? Please explain. Thanks.

    1. Well, regardless of our ideologies, beliefs, how we perceive reality, etc., facts are facts. If New Mexico has a weak (if not pathetic) economy, a dire fiscal condition, and a severe crime problem, those conditions impact us all, no matter what we think about them, what role we attach to racial/ethnic/cultural factors, etc.

      I’m willing to assume good will on the part of the uninformed supporters of Big Government — people who couldn’t pass a basic exam on taxes/spending, economics, campaign finance, healthcare, energy/environmental policy, etc. That list, in New Mexico and elsewhere, would include quite a few people with college degrees, I’m sorry to say. (The letters-to-the-editor page of the Santa Fe New Mexican provides examples on a daily basis. I am not a native New Mexican, but I suspect I’m related to many others, back in New England.) But the professional left doesn’t have the excuse of ignorance. On some level, it must be aware of the ineffectiveness/destructiveness of its preferred policies. We’ve been following the liberal playbook for a century: higher taxes, more welfare programs, greater regulation of private enterprise, huge subsidies to government schools, etc. And the results have been largely disastrous. The longer I’ve worked in this field — and I’ve spent my entire adult life in public policy — the tougher it gets for me to understand how anything other than willful ignoring of the data, perhaps motivated by nothing more than crass self-interest, explains why people continue to defend unlimited government.

      Consensus would be nice, but the cape buffalo can’t reach a win-win agreement with the lion pride that’s stalking it. “No Labels” is a fantasy. I can’t speak for all conservatives/libertarians, but my goal is to defeat (legislatively, at the ballot box, and in the court of public opinion, of course) welfarists, “public” unions, class warriors, central planners, corporatists, junk-science environmentalists, and the like. Their goal is to defeat those of us who defend capitalism and freedom.

      Those are unwelcome words for the avoid-conflict, “can’t we all get along?” community. But I’m afraid it’s an accurate depiction of where we find ourselves today. The Enlightenment (individual liberty, personal responsibility, limited government) vs. the cult of collectivism (pervasive control of citizens’ private and economic lives via a morally bankrupt political process) — if one side is winning, the other side is losing.

      I wish we lived in a nation where government knew its place, and people were free to live their lives as they see fit — earn a lot of money or a little, donate to charity or not, have a bunch of kids or none, build a mansion or live in a tent, drive a Monster Truck or pedal a bicycle, etc. I wish politics/policy were pretty much a nonfactor in our day-to-day existences. But as long as the left seeks to relentlessly tax, regulate, nanny, subsidize, and “service” the citizenry, we are destined to have plenty of conflict. Some of us aren’t willing to acquiesce, and abandon the principles of the Enlightenment. As long as we are around, we will be “making trouble.” But maybe — just maybe — we’re right. Learn as much as you can about what we stand for, and decide for yourself.

  4. There are people you don’t trust. They include “…welfarists, unionists, class warriors, central planners, corporatists, junk- science environmentalists and the like…”

    Perhaps our frame of reference would require adjustment. There are conservative/libertarians who depend on fire and police services, public education, Social Security, Unemployment Compensation, clean air and water, access to medical care, etc. In the absence or reduction of these as government tasks, how would society acquire these things without an organization (a private entity maybe?) picking up the slack?

    Who do you trust to do what needs to be done? It’s a sincere and honest question that requires an answer, because if I am to trust or distrust certain people and organizations, I really do need to know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are and how they are to be distinguished from one another. Who is worthy of a listen and who can and should be dismissed with the wave of a hand?

    Thank you for your patience. This is important to me.


  5. You are right sometimes, and I get the feeling the opposition won’t give you the time of day.


    1. I doubt I know any conservatives/libertarians who oppose taxpayer-subsidized fire and police departments. (Although in many medium- and small-sized communities, volunteers can provide those services. I grew up in a small town in the Connecticut River Valley where the fire department was all-volunteer. Armed citizens are a pretty effective police force, and unpaid constables are another possibility.)

      As for public education, the greater government’s role in schooling, the worse the outcomes have been. That’s more than a little inconvenient for the educrat lobby. Government-mandated “free” schooling is a fairly late development in Western Civilization. Many of our greatest minds never got anywhere near a government school, and many who were “educated” that way dropped out fairly quickly. I’d read “Market Education: The Unknown History” by Andrew J. Coulson for a good background on this. The anthology “The Twelve-Year Sentence: Radical Views of Compulsory Schooling” is another good resource.

      Clean air and water are complicated. Not all, but much of the progress that’s been made in environmental health in the last half-century had little to do with regulation. As economies advance and develop, waste (i.e., pollution) is reduced — and many “waste” products are eventually seen as valuable commodities. There are many fine books on the subject. I’d recommend “Air Quality in America: A Dose of Reality on Air Pollution Levels, Trends, and Health Risks” by Joel M. Schwartz and Steven F. Hayward” as a good place to start.

      As for medical care, the story is similar to government schools. More government = poorer quality and higher cost. I’d have no problem with a tax-supported, time-limited voucher system for lower-income people to buy health insurance — not “coverage,” INSURANCE — but that’s not what the left wants, is it? It prefers single payer, where everyone has equally miserable outcomes. (Except those who can buy their way out, of course — my Scotland-based sister and brother-in-law are lucky enough to have the resources to escape the UK’s nightmarish system.)

      You sure you want to cite Social Security as a justification for Big Government? It’s the greatest Ponzi Scheme in history, and insolvency is set to strike in 2034. What’s wrong with private savings/investment, and if necessary, the support of family members? (I’ve spent a fair amount of my life pitching in for care for elderly relatives. It’s not a burden, to be replaced by government, but a basic moral obligation to the ones who once sacrificed for you.)

      Unemployment compensation, in addition to being a major suppressor of people looking for work, could easily be provided by the private sector.

      Who do I trust? I certainly don’t trust “public servants.” While some may be well-intentioned, they’re human beings — flawed, as we all are. They look out for their own interests, which is hardly a sin, but when you’re spending other people’s money, it’s awfully easy to associate your well-being with limitless “public investment.”

      I trust family, friends, colleagues, and charitable/volunteer organizations. I also trust the profit motive. Private enterprise has multiple layers of accountability. Employees can rat out an employer if it’s doing something rotten. Customers walk away when a good/service is no longer needed/wanted/provided at a low cost. The media are always trolling for a good “exposé.” (Wish they’d focus a little more on government bureaucracies.) Shareholders demand that managers produce a return on investment — and in a free society, that can be done only by making consumers happy.

      I don’t trust entities that employ force to achieve their objectives. A wise man once wrote that taxes aren’t “the price we pay for civilization,” they’re the price we pay for FAILING to build a TRUE civilization. Human decency, human kindness, human progress don’t result from coercion. Ever. Short of a minimalist state — one geared exclusively toward protection of life, liberty, and property — government has no moral justification, and when we examine mission creep in the “public” sector, the costs are immense. Waste, fraud, abuse, malinvestment, corruption, bankruptcy … the list is endless. (I’ve spent the last 25 years documenting it all.)

      I don’t believe in The Magic Public Sector Fairy. It’s a myth, with as much credibility as Bigfoot and Little Green Men. Faith in it is wholly unwarranted, and my job is to explain why.

      “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve.”

      – Henry David Thoreau

  6. Funny, the Magic Private Property Fairy isn’t much better. Fairyland needs a new set of models that reflect what real people really want and need and demand in exchange for cooperation.

    There are countries with no private schools, where the achievement levels are consistently high and children are happy and healthy and get good jobs. There are no examples of places where all schools are private. In hypothetical simulations, the private models fail and are not adopted even by experts who are conservative and libertarian.

    In the 1980’s heads of hospitals and healthcare departments or institutions joined in think tanks to ask an open-ended question. What system provides the best healthcare to absolutely every individual who requires it at the lowest cost possible? The successful, powerful members of these think tanks were conservatives and libertarians.

    Their consensus answer was the single payer system. When confronted by the interests of private insurance and pharmaceutical companies, they felt pressure to narrow their focus to those with a stake in the status quo. The result was a compromise that cut off help to some and provided public welfare funds to giant corporations. It was called Romneycare after the conservative Republican who worked out the compromise.

    Similar results occur when conservative libertarians study nearly any problem that requires specific results and particular expertise. Those who work in water and air know what methods work. They are confronted with large corporate stakeholders who demand subsidies, and a compromise leaves your lake polluted, fixes my lake and pays me to build a “No Drinking” sign for you to post at lakeside.

    Healthcare providers don’t have the same customer as insurance companies. If you provide care, the patient or a parent/guardian works with doctors to make decisions. Insurance companies and big pharma look to the government to subsidize their private premiums by mandating coverage the way auto insurance is required. They have no stake in the decisions of patients and doctors. They want high premiums, low costs and no interference in making a profit. Your daughter’s death on the operating table is not their focus. They have payrolls and stock prices to worry about.

    It is the conservatives and libertarians who had these insights. Listen to Paul Ryan. He and Michael Moore should make a documentary together, because they are saying a lot of the same things. I never go to an insurance company or a pill seller for medical advice. They do a lot really well, and taking care of my medical issues are not on the list.

    Try “The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls.

    1. I don’t have the time and inclination to address everything you bring up here, but since the original piece was on education and that was your first point, I’ll say that where they have been tried (mostly in very poor 3rd world nations), truly private education is quite popular and works quite well: Also see “The Beautiful Tree” by Tooley.

      1. Thank you for the references, Paul.

        It was not my intention to go so far afield. My education expertise is limited. If I were Governor I’d want you on a study panel or commission to help advise on the subject.

        My ambitions for executive office far outstrip my past performance as a political organizer, but my heart is in the right place. I’ll keep trying to learn more about education as a primary institution.

    2. If you have concrete examples (please provide citations, links, etc.) of conservative/libertarian/free-market scholars and/or think tanks endorsing single-payer healthcare, I’d love to see them. Been in this business 25 years, and I have no idea what you’re talking about.

      No, there’s no Magic Private Property Fairy. There’s just reality. Human nature, absent some kind of genetic engineering, is immutable. Incentives matter. Inequality is natural — and in some ways, productive. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.

      Unlike central planning/leftism/socialism, freedom-oriented public policy recognizes reality, and the demonstrably dangerous — and often, hideously bloody — consequences of trying to build heaven on Earth. For that, the folks on our side are called selfish and callous and “mean-spirited.” The truth is, of course, the other way around. Much more misery has been produced by utopians with coercive power than has resulted from government geared solely toward the protection of life, liberty, and property.

      Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.

      – Pascal

  7. I have to say that I found this article rather refreshing, since the diversity of opinion found in the Santa Fe New Mexican (my local paper) usually only reaches from ‘left’ to ‘extreme left’. There are several things I find disturbing about about this and all the other education ‘funding adequacy’ lawsuits:

    1) The judiciary is the least well equipped of the three branches of government to be making decisions about appropriate funding levels for any program, since such spending decisions not only require expertise in the particular program (which few judges have) but also in the costs/benefit trade offs that need to be made to balance additional spending against the impact of raising taxes or cutting other programs.

    2) There is no consensus in either the legal or education research community on an effective methodology to establish education ‘funding adequacy’ and all of the commonly used methods for this have fundamental flaws. A good review can be found in the following article:

    3) State education departments (the defendant in these cases) can’t be expected to put up the most vigorous defense, since what government department can be expected to fight hard against a higher funding level? A good discussion of this issue is found in Prof. Eric Hanusheck’s book: “Schoolhouses, Courthouses and Statehouses”. See

    I do have to disagree with one point in your commentary though, e.g. that there is no evidence of a relationship between spending levels and academic outcomes. The most recent and rigorous work on the subject can be found in:
    (One of the authors of this study, Rothstein, testified for the plaintiffs in the New Mexico lawsuit).

    There are a number of methodological issues one might question about this and other education related observational studies with a complex research design, but Rothstein et al aren’t lightweights who one can dismiss out of hand.

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