Students in New Mexico’s public schools still lack basic necessities, says one group of plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit accusing the state of failing to provide an adequate education to children in need of the most support.
Six months into Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s first term and a few months after she and the New Mexico Legislature championed an education overhaul that included nearly a half-billion dollars in new funding for schools, plaintiff Wilhemina Yazzie says in a document filed Friday the state so far has not complied with a judge’s ruling.
Yazzie, who has children in Gallup McKinley County Schools, is one of the lead plaintiffs in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, a 5-year-old lawsuit in the state District Court in Santa Fe. Last summer, following a weekslong trial, Judge Sarah Singleton ruled New Mexico must do more to support its special-education students, Native American children, English-language learners and kids from low-income families. She ordered the governor and Legislature to come up with a plan by April.
While the governor and lawmakers have touted efforts this year to boost spending on schools, overhaul the way funding is allocated and initiate new programs for groups of students cited in the suit, Friday’s filing, a notice of case status, argues education spending still remains below prerecession levels of 2008.
And while the Yazzie plaintiffs, represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, worked with lawmakers on legislation to help remedy inequities in education, most of those initiatives and funding were blocked and died in committees, the filing says.
“[The Legislature] took last year’s budget, made some adjustments, with some steps forwards and some steps backwards, and, in the end, left us with a patchwork system of education and inadequate funding that continues to fail our students,” the document says.
“Plaintiffs have determined that the outcome of the 2019 legislative session was anything but the moonshot claimed by legislative leadership.”
The document accuses the state of miscalculating how much money school districts would need to cover mandatory 6 percent raises for employees, forcing some districts to spend money meant for new programs on salary hikes.
The filing also condemns the Legislature’s requirements for implementing K-5 Plus, a voluntary summer program for elementary students that adds 25 days to the beginning of a school year. Under the rules, a K-5 Plus teacher must stay with students in the program through the regular school year — something smaller districts found unattainable this summer.
Many complained they didn’t have enough time to organize a large enough pool of teachers for the program and had to forgo it.
K-5 Plus is an expanded version of a previous program, called K-3 Plus, that gave districts more flexibility on when they could offer the summer program for young students and which teachers could fill classrooms.
State Rep. Rebecca Dow, a R-Truth or Consequences, said in an interview Friday, “My rural school districts were saying from the start, ‘We don’t have enough teachers’ for this K-5 Plus program.
“There are rural districts that were doing K-3 Plus,” she said, “but when they were told it was K-5 or nothing with this teacher requirement, they couldn’t keep up the program. Were we intentional in our allocations,or did we just throw money at this?”
Still, Dow said, she believes the state is generally headed in the right direction.
Lauren Winkler, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said her clients in the lawsuit are encouraged by the work of Lujan Grisham’s Public Education Department, whose Cabinet secretary, Karen Trujillo, and many of her deputies are former classroom teachers.
But they wish the Legislature would give the department more financial backing, she said.
“We know that the PED and the governor want what is best for New Mexico students,” Winkler said. “But within this past session, the Legislature really fell short in funding programs. It’s very clear half a billion was not enough.”
In her decision, Singleton identified several sources of additional funding for schools, beyond the state’s general fund, such as the multibillion-dollar Land Grant Permanent Fund and tax reforms.
Legislative efforts to use a larger share of the state land endowment’s investment revenues for education have failed for years.
Going forward, the Public Education Department said it hears the calls for haste.
“To be clear: We understand the urgency for our students and we are unequivocally committed to working collaboratively and creatively to provide every single New Mexico child with the resources they need,” Trujillo said in a statement. “That work will continue.”