If New Mexico’s struggling public education system someday moves up the ladder in national rankings, some will say the credit goes to First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton.
It was Singleton who ruled that the state of New Mexico has failed to provide an adequate education for students with the greatest challenges, including those learning English as a second language; special-needs students; kids from low-income households and Native American children.
In other words, a huge chunk of the state’s K-12 population.
Her 76-page decision, rendered a year ago, in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit against the state, was punctuated by a searing passage that contended New Mexico had “violated the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a uniform statewide system of free public schools sufficient for their education.”
Her decision was hailed by some as a turning point for New Mexico’s public schools, long mired at or near the bottom of national statistics.
Spurred in part by that ruling, the state Legislature appropriated an extra $480 million in the budget for public education for the 2019-20 fiscal year. Though critics contend it was not enough, many advocates say Singleton got the ball rolling with her decision.
But Singleton’s death Thursday — she succumbed to cancer at age 70 — also leaves some unanswered questions about what will happen next in terms of maintaining judicial oversight on her landmark 2018 ruling. Lawyers and legislators involved with the case say it seems logical that the First Judicial District Court will appoint a new judge to carry Singleton’s motions forward.
Whoever gets that job will face a significant challenge, said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque and a member of the Senate Education Committee.
Stewart, who testified in favor of the plaintiffs in that court case, said Singleton studied the issue for four or five years and built up a treasure chest of knowledge that will be hard to match.
“It’s not often that you find a judge who is willing to really look at the education system in the way you need to do when a lawsuit like this is brought against it,” Stewart said. “She had all this time invested in it, she had an idea of what she was looking for, and it’s unfortunate we are losing that vision. … What judge can understand the education system the way she did?”
Singleton presided over the trial with a sense of patience, calm and humor. She pushed witnesses who gave vague answers to clarify their remarks and cut short any contentious discussion with attorneys with a tense turn of the voice that had the same effect as the pounding of a gavel.
Here and there, she relied on her dry sense of wit to ease tension. Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming and head of the state’s Senate Finance Committee, testified in front of Singleton on behalf of the defense, telling her that any additional spending for public education would have to be pulled from other state services — including the court system, which at that time accounted for about 3 percent of the state budget.
“Our contribution would be a pittance, then,” Singleton told Smith. “Look somewhere else [for the money].”
Singleton’s decision last summer loomed over the 2019 legislative session, and staked with $1 billion in new revenue, the lawmakers poured money into public schools. Much of that new investment will go into expanded learning opportunities, such as K-5 Plus summer programs, as well as higher teacher salaries.
Still, just last week the Yazzie plaintiffs filed a notice of case status that said the state so far has not complied with Singleton’s ruling.
“[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,” that notice says. “Plaintiffs have determined that the outcome of the 2019 legislative session was anything but the moonshot claimed by legislative leadership.”
But Sen. Bill Soules, D-Las Cruces and chair of the Senate Education Committee, said the plaintiffs’ complaints were premature given the new initiatives are just kicking in.
“This is a start in funding for public education,” said Soules. “There will be additional funding. I think the Legislature did quite a job at meeting some of the key pieces on it. Over the next several years, it will play out more in terms of how that money gets down to the kids.”
Attorney Gail Evans, who represented the Yazzie plaintiffs for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said in a statement Friday that Singleton’s death “is a huge loss for New Mexico and the country and the justice system. She was a tireless advocate for access to justice regardless of income. Like all of her legal opinions, her decision in the Yazzie/Martinez case is strong and clear and rooted in the law.
“We are confident that the next judge will implement her decision just as she would have — to ensure that the children of New Mexico finally receive the education they need and are entitled to under the constitution.”
Rep. G. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque and chair of the House Education Committee, said he believes the Legislature will work in tandem with any new judge assigned to the case to “continue to adequately fund the programs necessary for children.”
He said Singleton’s legacy in terms of the education lawsuit ruling will live on “for a very, very long time. The impact will be far reaching. Our students will be learning from history teachers about this case for years. It’s definitely something we will be talking about five, 10, 15, 20 years down the road.”