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Trial over state of education in New Mexico begins

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia.

SANTA FE – Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia took the stand Monday morning in 1st Judicial District Court to argue that New Mexico's Public Education Department is not providing enough money to meet students' needs.

Garcia was the first witness in the landmark trial – a consolidation of two similar lawsuits, Martinez v. New Mexico and Yazzie v. New Mexico. The lawsuits contend that the level of resources the state is providing violates its own constitution's promise to provide a sufficient education for all children.

Volumes of defense exhibits line the shelves in a courtroom at 1st Judicial District Court for the school funding trial that started Monday in Santa Fe. The defense team says these are not all of its exhibits, with more still to come. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Jeff Wechsler, the PED's attorney, said the school system is not perfect but it far exceeds the standard outlined in the New Mexico Constitution.

“The plaintiffs must show a complete failure of the system such that the right of education for New Mexico school children is an empty promise,” Wechsler said during opening statements before Judge Sarah Singleton.

Plaintiffs claim the districts' funding is inadequate and particularly impacts English language learners, Native Americans and low-income students.

Garcia, a veteran administrator who also served as New Mexico's first secretary of education, wholeheartedly agreed.

“The size of the pie is the issue,” she said.

The superintendent pointed to a variety of problems driven by the contested funding, including larger class sizes, a shortage of qualified teachers and lack of space in programs like full-day pre-kindergarten.

Garcia said the state has not kept up with the costs as school districts' expenses have continued to rise.

Wechsler said there is no evidence additional money will result in better test scores because the state is already providing sufficient funding.

New Mexico ranks 29th in the nation for per-pupil spending and allocates about $2.7 billion for education – more per pupil than neighboring states such as Arizona and Utah, according to the National Education Association.

And New Mexico's graduation rate reached a record-breaking 71 percent in 2016, while standardized test scores and Advanced Placement test rates have also gone up. But New Mexico remains near the bottom of the nation on nearly every measure of educational success, including the graduation rate.

Regarding success rates by students of various ethnicities, Wechsler acknowledged that New Mexico has an achievement gap, but said that is true across the nation.

No state has found “the silver bullet” to definitively close the gap, Wechsler said, but New Mexico is making strides.

Garcia stressed that she believes the state is failing many children.

“It still is shocking that roughly 10 percent of our kids are proficient in math when they graduate from high school,” Garcia said. “That's unconscionable.”

David Berliner, an Arizona State University professor of education who testified for the plaintiffs, said he visited six New Mexico school districts and concluded that “the state could do a lot better by its poor kids.”

Under cross-examination, Berliner acknowledged that he had not reviewed New Mexico's education programs or other data.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty organized Berliner's visits to the six districts – Cuba, Gallup, Lake Arthur, Moriarty/Edgewood, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe – which are participating in Yazzie v. New Mexico.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization, filed Martinez v. New Mexico on behalf of families from seven school districts, Albuquerque, Española, Gadsden, Las Cruces, Magdalena, Santa Fe and Zuni.

The nine-week trial is expected to have a broad scope: More than 130 depositions were taken and over a million pages of documents have been exchanged.

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