Some legislators overseeing state finances are growing weary of a court mandate to direct more school resources toward English-language learners, Native Americans, poor children and special-education students.
The state Public Education Department is preparing its second budget request since the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit resulted in a finding that the state is denying those groups of students their constitutional right to a sufficient education by underfunding schools.
Legislative Finance Committee members from both sides of the aisle told Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart this week that they’re worried the court decision is playing too large a role in policymaking.
“Judges shouldn’t be legislating from the bench and I think that’s what has happened here,” said Sen. Clemente Sanchez, D-Grants. “I think we’ve focused too much only on satisfying the Martinez-Yazzie lawsuit, and one person made that decision, and that was the judge.”
Stewart was in front of the Legislative Finance Committee to present the Public Education Department’s budget request for the 2020-21 school year, which seeks a 4 percent raise for all school employees and a 5 percent increase in the amount of per-student funding for each school district.
In a phone interview with The New Mexican on Thursday, Gail Evans of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, lead attorney for the Yazzie group of plaintiffs, called for a 25 percent increase in funding. Meanwhile, Ernest Herrera, a staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund who is serving as lead counsel for Martinez plaintiffs, said he is yet to be convinced the Public Education Department has a plan to make sufficient changes to comply with the ruling.
Despite the disparity between the Public Education Department request and demands from plaintiffs, lawmakers criticized Stewart for overcomplying. “I listened to your presentation sir, and I think has the PED become the Yazzie/Martinez response team department?” Rep. Phelps Anderson, R-Roswell, said. “I think we’re making a mistake to create a special class of students, which is being done when we say ‘especially these students.’ ”
Stewart, who is African American, responded to Anderson with a personal story about what he sees as a both a moral and legal imperative to break down an academic achievement gap that exists across racial and socioeconomic lines.
“I think back to my own parents, who were born into low-income segregated communities in the Midwest, and I think about the fact that they were able to have a great educational system that allowed them to live up to their full potential and create great lives for me and my brother and interrupt what could have been a cycle of generational poverty,” Stewart said.
“We know very clearly we have a set of demographic markers here in New Mexico that are far too predictable of success, so making sure our education system produces for every single kid regardless of demographic circumstances is a moral imperative,” he added. “Our schools should be that kind of meritocracy for our students.”
During his presentation, Stewart outlined the Public Education Department’s ongoing response to Yazzie/Martinez, which so far is focusing on raising salaries and extending the school year.
The department asked for an additional $93 million to give all school employees, except superintendents, a 4 percent raise.
This year, the state spent $29 million to offer K-5 Plus, a 25-day summer program that served around 18,000 students. For next summer, the Public Education Department is requesting $68.4 million to bring K-5 Plus to 50,000 students.
The state is spending $42.3 million this year on an extended learning time initiative, which adds 10 days worth of class time anywhere on the school calendar, for around 84,000 of its roughly 330,000 students. For 2020-21, the Public Education Department is requesting $95.6 million to bring extended learning time to 190,000 students.
Stewart explained to the Legislative Finance Committee that both programs are designed to close the achievement gap between the cohorts mentioned in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit and their peers. Public Education Department data shows 26 percent of low-income students enrolled in both prekindergarten and K-5 Plus score as proficient in reading compared to 12 percent of students without that extra time in the classroom.
“As a department, we are committed to making sure that we deliver for all the kids that the court case identifies because they’ve been underserved for too long,” Stewart said. “Our first mission is to make sure we’re doing well by those students. As we’re doing that, we’re going to comply with the lawsuit. [The lawsuit] is not the driver, but delivering for those kids is already core to what we need to do.”