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School districts, families sue state over education funding

New Mexico is providing so little funding to public schools that it violates the state constitution, according to a lawsuit that will be heard in Santa Fe’s 1st Judicial District Court.

Yazzie v. State of New Mexico – a case that includes a number of families and the Cuba, Gallup, Lake Arthur, Moriarty/Edgewood, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe school districts – claims the lack of education money disproportionately impacts students who are low-income, Native Americans or English Language Learners.

Today, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty will request a summary judgment on behalf of the group during a pretrial hearing.

Yazzie v. State of New Mexico was filed in March 2014 and eventually consolidated with Martinez v. State of New Mexico, which makes similar claims.

Martinez v. State of New Mexico was spearheaded by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and includes parents and children from Española, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Zuni, Magdalena, Las Cruces and Gadsden. The consolidated lawsuit goes to trial on June 12.

While the funding problem predates the current state leadership, Edward Tabet-Cubero, executive director of New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said things have gotten worse under Gov. Susana Martinez. Districts went through two rounds of budget cuts during the current fiscal year, including a reduction in their cash reserves.

At the same time, the Martinez administration “panders to corporations” and blames teachers for New Mexico’s poor academic performance, according to Tabet-Cubero.

“Regardless of what the governor wants to do with her blame game, we don’t blame the teachers,” he said during a conference call with news media Friday.

Tabet-Cubero feels the central issue is whether the state is providing valuable enrichment opportunities equitably to all students.

He cited the K-3 Plus summer program, which offers an additional 25 days of school for kids in kindergarten through third grade.

Launched nearly a decade ago, K-3 Plus is funded across the state through a grant distributed by the New Mexico Public Education Department. Recently, PED reduced the grant funding, leading Albuquerque Public Schools to announce that it would drop 20 schools sites and cap total enrollment at about 3,000 students, compared with about 5,000 last year.

PED has said other districts have found alternative funding sources to maintain K-3 Plus.

In an emailed statement, PED spokeswoman Lida Alikhani also pushed back on the lawsuit’s claims, calling them “flat-out wrong.”

“The fact is, we are spending more on education than ever before – with more dollars going into the classroom – and have implemented bold reforms that help struggling students learn,” she said.

“Let’s be clear: These political activists are only suing because they want to preserve the status quo, and we are the only ones standing in their way.”

Veronica Garcia, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, countered that funding has gone up incrementally over years but is still far from “sufficient” – the standard laid out in the state constitution.

She and Tabet-Cubero believe that districts should receive an additional $600 million, though it would be up to the judge to decide how much more is needed if the lawsuit is decided for the plaintiffs.

A spokesman for the National Education Association of New Mexico, a union that represents teachers in many of the school districts involved in the lawsuit, said Education Secretary Hanna Skandera is “disconnected from the realities most New Mexicans know: our public schools are not sufficiently funded.”

“Every day she sounds more Trumpian with her name-calling,” said Charles Goodmacher, NEA-NM government and media relations director. “She posits that she alone knows what is best. Ivory tower arrogance. What a different legacy she might leave were she to fully embrace every effort to champion sufficient funding for our public schools!”

The case will hinge on the meaning of “sufficient” funding, Tabet-Cubero said, but even if the court does not find in their favor, the center is prepared to lead an appeal.

“We are in this for the long game,” he said.