The public education system in New Mexico is substantially different than the one in place just a few school years ago, according to a motion filed by the state in First Judicial District Court last week that argues the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit should be dismissed because its orders have been sufficiently met.
In essence, the state is asking Judge Mathew Wilson to determine it has complied with a ruling from the late Judge Sarah Singleton, who in July 2018 ruled New Mexico denies English-language learners and special-education, Native American and low-income students their constitutional right to a sufficient education. Wilson was assigned the case last summer after Singleton’s death.
Citing the two most recent legislative sessions in which hundreds of millions were earmarked for the state K-12 system, plus a handful of executive orders and some policy changes by the Public Education Department, the state says in the motion the school system has fundamentally changed.
“Every topic addressed by the court’s injunction has been reexamined and improved since the Court entered its findings,” the motion says. “Legislative, budgetary, administrative and programmatic actions have so fundamentally changed the circumstances for at-risk students in New Mexico’s public education system, the court should rule that defendants have substantially complied.”
In the motion, the state, which is being represented by private law firm Robles, Rael & Anaya, argues the court should be determining whether the state has complied with the terms of Singleton’s order, not with assessing whether the state’s education system is currently constitutional.
Lawyers representing the plaintiffs said complying with Singleton’s order requires the state’s education system to meet its constitutional mandate.
“They are reading the court’s order far too narrowly and arguing because they have taken some initial steps they have fulfilled the order, and we should just trust them to bring our system into constitutional compliance,” said Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs. “And trusting them has never worked in the past. That’s why we filed the lawsuit in the first place — we couldn’t trust the Legislature or the governor or the Public Education Department to provide the school system we deserve. We need the court to be a watchdog and hold the state’s feet to the fire.”
The Governor’s Office said Tuesday afternoon that control over education policy should be taken away from the courts.
“The court ordered the state to address specific shortcomings in our educational system, and we have taken that directive seriously. The governor and the Public Education Department have implemented a number of reforms, in addition to substantial increases in educational funding,” spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said in an email. “New Mexico has complied with the spirit of the court’s order. Going forward, it is imperative that educational policy is guided by elected officials and experts in the field, not third parties.”
In the motion, the state points toward spending in recent budgets, saying public education funding now takes up 46.2 percent of the state budget compared to 43.8 percent in 2008, thanks to an 18 percent increase in education funding between the start of the 2017-18 school year and the start of this school year.
The motion also notes an additional $135 million in annual funding for at-risk students, a drop from 740 full-time teacher vacancies to 644 and a host of new accountability measures from the PED as signs of compliance.
Legislators and superintendents say the state’s initial steps to overhaul the education system have yet to bring much change. Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, sponsored legislation last session with unanimous support from tribal and pueblo leaders that would have funded internet infrastructure and tribal libraries in rural New Mexico. It passed the House Education Committee but did not receive another hearing. “We’ve thrown money at the problem to hope it goes away, and yes, school districts have more money now than when the ruling came out, but I don’t think anyone buys that there has been substantial change,” Lente said. “The lawsuits stands for everything Hispanic kids and Native kids have been complaining about for decades and finally gave us some form of verification that yes, the system is not equal. To dismiss the lawsuit now sends the wrong message that we’ve done everything we can. We have not.”
Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García said the lawsuit could help hold the Legislature and Governor’s Office accountable in the event of budget cuts. As the state’s first Public Education Department Secretary from 2003-10, García said she saw plans for universal prekindergarten, which the state is still striving for, fall apart during the 2008 recession.
“If we don’t keep the lawsuit alive, then the judge can’t hold all parties accountable, and it would be so easy for all of these efforts to get lost,” García said. “Then we won’t make the progress needed to ensure all children have a sufficient education. We won’t address equity in a systemic way. The lawsuit is critical for transparency.”
A hearing in the case had already been scheduled for March 27, when lawyers representing Yazzie and Martinez say they will argue the state has not fully complied with the court order and ask for further information from the Legislature and Public Education Department about their compliance efforts. Both sets of lawyers say they also will file responses to the state’s recent motion in about a month.
“Without getting into the weeds too much, the state’s motion is incorrect on one level — they mistake and overstate the degree to which they have come into compliance with a constitutionally adequate system,” said Ernest Herrera, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund representing the Martinez plaintiffs. “We do not believe that has happened yet.”