A landmark lawsuit that sought to overhaul public education in New Mexico will face another legal test Monday.
State District Judge Matthew Wilson is set to hear arguments on whether to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez case, which requires the state to provide more education funding for its most at-risk students, such as English-language learners.
The Governor’s Office has asked the court to toss the case, arguing the public education system in New Mexico is substantially different from the one in place when the late Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in July 2018 that the state denies Native American, special-education and low income students their constitutional right to a sufficient education.
The executive branch argues the Public Education Department, not the courts, should oversee reform.
Wilson took over the case after Singleton died in July 2019.
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs, legislators and the other defendant in the lawsuit say the state’s education landscape has yet to meaningfully transform, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates preexisting inequalities such as disparities in internet access.
“The state seeks to dismiss this case with the idea that New Mexico communities should just trust the Public Education Department to do what is right, but we know that approach has not worked in the past. That’s the reason we had the lawsuit in the first place,” said Preston Sanchez, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico who is representing the Yazzie plaintiffs in coordination with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “The state’s motion did not provide any concrete evidence things have improved. Student outcomes are still abysmal.”
Last week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation released an annual survey that uses 16 indicators to rank states for child well-being. For the third straight year, New Mexico ranked last in the country.
The state’s motion to dismiss the case cites increases in education funding and new programs under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration, which both have taken a hit during the pandemic. During this month’s special session, 4 percent salary increases for teachers were cut, and while the Public Education Department has championed K-5 Plus, a program that adds 25 days to the elementary school calendar, as a data-driven response to the ruling, the department canceled this year’s version of the program in May, citing health concerns.
A nonbinding House memorial that opposed the case’s dismissal did not receive a hearing during the special session because of time constraints.
Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said he and 14 other Democrats in the House sent Lujan Grisham a letter April 3 expressing opposition to dismissing the lawsuit but did not receive a response until nearly three months later on June 26.
The Yazzie plaintiffs; the Martinez plaintiffs, who are being represented by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund; and legislators say they want the state to provide a long-term plan for resolving racism and inequities in the state’s schools.
“If from July 2018 to today we had come to a point were the Public Education Department and the administration created a plan of action that shows these are the investments we will make and this is how we will roll them out going forward, I know I would be in a much better place to say, ‘We’re on a good path forward,’ “ said Lente, who introduced a handful of bills directed at the lawsuit in this year’s regular session that were supported by every pueblo and tribe in the state but did not receive a floor vote.
“Until we have that long-term plan, we can’t feel safe,” he added. “Old habits die hard, and I’m not alone in this sentiment. If the court goes away, we might very well fall back into the old way of doing business.”