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.”

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(5) comments

Nicoletta Munroe

I read the original case and it is one of the most effective statistics cases I have seen.

The state is in a budget crisis so they want to dismiss the case, yet that is not the answer. Why not continue the plan to improve education? The PED should review its hierarchy, cut upper management costs, and place those funds in the classroom. The state would benefit from zero superintendents, and hire accountants instead in those positions. The state does need educated master level teachers whom value students.

Andrew Lucero

I think the biggest problem with this case has always been the wording. Having a constitutional right to a “sufficient education” is highly subjective. I mean what is “sufficient”? The answer varies widely between parents, students, activists, administrators and the judges themselves. For parents who truly value education and are active in every aspect of their kids’ lives, funding is never enough. But for those parents who don’t value education (and sadly there are far too many parents in New Mexico who fall into this category), they could care less. It’s shocking how many parents think of our schools as nothing more than free daycare.

Bottom line, our public schools are abominable and have been failing our kids for decades. There are multiple reasons why. Far too many to address here. But let’s fantasize for a moment. Imagine that we had inexhaustible funds to pump into education. That we could build citadels of enlightenment where class sizes are small (no more than 10 students to a class) and each class is taught by a Ph.D. An academic institution that provides each student with all their clothing and school supplies. Each student is provided with a new computer every year and given access to cutting edge technology. Heck, we could even feed them 3 square meals a day and a snack, all prepared by Michelin Star chefs… And yet, all of this would be for not if the parents are not involved in their kids’ lives and don’t care about education. It all starts at home folks. And no amount of money can change that fundamental fact.

Augustin de la Sierra

I think parsing Andrew Lucero's post is a bit of a challenge. His next-to-bottom line, though, is supported by statistical studies: "... all of this would be for not if the parents are not involved in their kids’ lives and don’t care about education. It all starts at home folks." The number one predictor of a child's success in school is not income, parents' own education, or teachers. Studies show that the best predictor of a child's success in school is parental involvement. Money steered towards training programs "recruiting" parents to be involved, as their free time allows, might make a difference.

Else I think New Mexico teachers are underpaid and overworked.

Mary Ellen Gonzales

I think Augustin de la Sierra's observations are right on! I spent 8 years on our local school board and never met a parent who did not want their child to get a good education. However, many of these same parents--and, of course their children--did not feel welcome in school. So, of course, if school is a hostile, unwelcoming place, then what happens there to and with the children will not be effective. It is not that the schools did not want parental involvement; it was more that parents and schools are not on the same page, so to speak. The schools are not treating the children as the parents want them to be treated; not being taught what the parents want their children to learn. And many parents did not have good experiences in school when they were young, so they do not feel good about school. Add to that the feeling of school personnel that the parents are not properly parenting the children, and the amount of miscommunication is huge. And children don't learn.

We need to have a conversation about what we want our children to learn; that conversation MUST include educators! And no one will be completely happy, and everyone must understand the difference between needs and wants. We need to put the needs of our children--all our children--first. And even then, it won't be perfect; but it will be better.

Augustin de la Sierra

Former long-time school board member Mary Ellen Gonzales: I think your observations above are profound.

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