A state district judge on Monday rejected the governor’s motion to dismiss Yazzie/Martinez v. The State of New Mexico, a landmark education funding lawsuit.
“Until there are long-term comprehensive reforms implemented by the state,” First Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson said in his ruling, “the court will maintain jurisdiction over this case.”
After campaigning on a “moonshot” for education and pushing for increases in public school spending in her first two legislative sessions, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham surprised many education leaders in March when her administration filed a motion requesting dismissal of the case.
The motion argued the state’s public education system had substantially changed since July 2018, when Judge Sarah Singleton ruled New Mexico’s schools had been depriving English-learning, Native American, low-income and special-education students — around 80 percent of the state’s 330,000 students — of an education that adequately prepares them for college and careers.
Wilson took over the case after Singleton died in July 2019.
The Governor’s Office also argued ahead of Monday’s hearing that the Public Education Department, not the courts, should oversee education reforms.
During a videoconference hearing on Lujan Grisham’s motion, attorney Taylor Rahn from Albuquerque-based Robles, Rael & Anaya, representing the state, focused her argument on the $480 million increase in education funding Lujan Grisham signed in April 2019.
The boost in funding, combined with new teacher, student and school evaluation systems, preceded a drop in statewide teacher vacancies — to 644 full-time positions in 2019-20 from 740 in 2018-19, Rahn said, citing an annual report from New Mexico State University.
“We’re not throwing up our hands and saying we’re done,” Rahn said. “But what we are saying is we’ve taken enough action to show immediate steps by April 15, 2019, to improve the public education system, which is what the court required.”
Singleton’s ruling did require those immediate steps.
Plaintiffs successfully argued, however, the ruling also called for proven programs and reforms that would provide more career and college opportunities for the at-risk students named in the suit.
Wilson sided with them.
“The court agrees with the plaintiff’s counsel that to dismiss this action now while implementation and compliance are merely in their initial stages would undermine years of work and leave the children of New Mexico in an educational system that may be below constitutional standards,” he said in his ruling.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs — a group of public school families and several school districts, including Gallup-McKinley County, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Cuba, Moriarty-Edgewood and Lake Arthur — said the state’s funding increases have yet to show any results.
For the Class of 2019, the statewide graduation rate was 74.9 percent, an increase of just one percentage point over the previous school year.
“Things like national assessments of how students are doing, graduation rates and dropout rates, we haven’t seen improvement in those areas,” said Ernest Herrera, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund who represents the Martinez group of plaintiffs.
“Defendants characterize improvements as incremental, however that’s not enough,” Herrera said. “It’s unacceptable to say there are incremental improvements when a quarter of New Mexico students are not graduating.”
After denying the state’s motion to dismiss the case, Wilson approved a motion the Martinez plaintiffs had filed in October seeking discovery and enforcement proceedings. This will allow them to request documents and gather information from the state on how the executive and legislative branches are complying with the lawsuit.
Wilson denied a motion from the Yazzie plaintiffs that would have required Lujan Grisham and the Legislature to form a plan outlining the costs and programs required to fully comply with the lawsuit.
He denied the motion without prejudice, meaning it can be filed again at a later date.
“We need to know what is it going to actually cost to ensure that our schools have the social services, reading specialists, counselors and nurses they need, and then we need to figure out how we are going to deliver those funds to schools,” said Gail Evans of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents the Yazzie plaintiffs.
“Every day that we wait and don’t have a plan, we are not moving towards the systemic statewide overhaul that this court has called for,” she added.
“Yes, there was more money,” Evans said, “but it’s more money in the same old system without any determination of what we need to do to transform our school system.”