Zuni Public School Dist. No. 89 v. Department of Education

PETITIONER:Zuni Public School District No. 89 et al.
RESPONDENT:United States Department of Education et al.
LOCATION:Carhart’s Residence

DOCKET NO.: 05-1508
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 550 US 81 (2007)
GRANTED: Sep 26, 2006
ARGUED: Jan 10, 2007
DECIDED: Apr 17, 2007

Leigh Marc Manasevit – argued the cause for Respondent, on behalf of state respondent
Ronald J. VanAmberg – argued the cause for Petitioners
Sri Srinivasan – argued the cause for Respondent

Facts of the case

The Department of Education certified that the state of New Mexico equalizes educational expenditures among school districts. The certification of equalization allowed New Mexico to offset its funding of districts located on Indian Reservations by a proportion of the federal Impact Aid payments made to those districts. Zuni Public School District objected to the certification, arguing that the Department had not followed the statutory formula for determining that a state’s expenditures are equalized. Outlier school districts falling above the 95th or below the 5th percentile in per-pupil expenditures were excluded from consideration when the Department determined equalization. The Department calculated these percentiles based on the total student population, but Zuni argued that 20 U.S.C. Section 7709 had repealed that policy.

An administrative judge dismissed Zuni’s complaint, and the Secretary of Education affirmed on the ground that the law was ambiguous. A divided panel of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit upheld the Secretary’s decision as a valid interpretation of the statute. In a rehearing by the entire Circuit Court, the 12 judges split evenly, again upholding the ruling.


Was the Secretary of Education’s regulatory formula for determining whether a state’s education funding is equalized among its school districts consistent with 20 U.S.C. Section 7709, the Federal Impact Aid Program?

Media for Zuni Public School Dist. No. 89 v. Department of Education

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – January 10, 2007 in Zuni Public School Dist. No. 89 v. Department of Education

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 17, 2007 in Zuni Public School Dist. No. 89 v. Department of Education

Stephen G. Breyer:

Second case, I hope you thought that one was technical.

This one is called Zuni School District versus the Department of Education.

Now, there is a federal statute again and what this federal statute says is, it says that “if in fact there are a lot of costs that the federal government is making a local school district incur.”

For example maybe there is a lot of federal land nearby or maybe there is an army-base and they have to educate the children.

So, the federal government has made it harder for the local school district to raise money for its expenses or to pay money for the education.

Will Then the federal government will give them some money they will write them a check, say, it was for a million dollars.

Well, the federal government says in this statute now if we give you the million dollars to the School District for this, the state cannot just take the million away by reducing their own aid to the School District by a million; they can’t do that.

But, then someone worked out that suppose they have what’s called an equalization program in the state where they try to keep per-pupil expenditure about the same in all the school districts, suddenly, there’ll be a school district with an extra million dollars and that might make them the riches.

So, they should be able to offset in that situation and so they wrote the statute to say but, in that situation they can offset provided there is an equalization program.

Well, what’s an equalization program?

So, the statute sets up a method for measuring that and it says basically the method consists of list all the school districts in order of per-pupil expenditure, look at the top one, look at the bottom one and if it’s less than 25% difference in what they’re spending per-pupil then you’ve got an equalization program.

So far so good but then they add an instruction, the added instruction is to say when you make that list don’t put in the outliers, well, what’s an outlier?

An outlier and this is what’s called the disregard instruction, says that, when comparing the highest and lowest per-pupil expenditures the “secretary shall disregard school districts with per-pupil expenditures above the 95th percentile or below the 5th percentile of such expenditures.”

Now, we get to the question in the case.

When the Secretary of Education was administering this statute he would lineup all the school districts and then when you try to see what to disregard, he looked to the top 5% of pupils by number and pupils by bottom, that’s the top and the bottom.

Now, some school districts have worked out they’re going to get more money if they say, you shouldn’t have done that, what you’re supposed to do is disregard 5% of the school districts, not 5% of the pupils.

Well, which should it be?

The secretary says, I want to tell you two things, first, we’ve done it my way, pupils for 35 years now, I wrote this statute in draft and sent it to Congress and there are no exceptions and I have excellent reasons.

My reason of course is imagine that you had a school district, a state would say 20 school districts and suppose that of the 20.

For example, two of them accounted for half of the pupils in the state, the rest were rural, and suppose that two one was at the top and one was at the bottom, well, 5% of school districts, you’ll be disregarding half of the pupils, those who are not outliers.

So, I want to do it my way by pupils, it makes sense historically, it makes sense in terms of purpose but what about the language.

At this point, all of us I think, all nine of us worked out that that language is a little difficult.

So, we’ve gone into the language in depth in the opinion for those who are interested you can read about that language and five of us, a majority in the opinion I am announcing conclude that the language permits the Secretary’s interpretation.

Four of us conclude that it doesn’t and they dissent.

Well, by this greater than before so we favor the Secretary in our holding and we affirm the judgment of the Tenth Circuit.

Justice Stevens has written a concurring opinion.

Justice Kennedy has written a concurring opinion which Justice Alito has joined.

Justice Scalia has written a dissenting opinion in which the Chief Justice and Justice Thomas have joined and in which Justice Souter has joined as to Part I.

Justice Souter has written a dissenting opinion.