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Lawsuit an education game-changer

Adrian Martinez was excited to finally meet his attorney. The first thing the nine-year-old said was, “Are you the one who is going to help me to read?” His grandmother, Dolores, says her eyes welled up with tears.

Three years later the lawsuit that bears Adrian’s family name – Martinez vs. State of New Mexico – is now underway. Dolores says this suit, which will be decided before the end of summer, could be a game-changer.

The Latino Education Task Force has worked for nearly 15 years to get lawmakers and the executive branch to embrace the new reality in New Mexico: that more than 75 percent of all students are culturally distinct and that schools are failing to educate more than half of them. If 75 percent of students were white and suffered these statistics, we wouldn’t be talking about reform – we’d be having a revolution.

The mission of the LETF, of which I am a founding member, is the complete elimination of the achievement gap between white students and their peers.

The LETF helped pass legislation, which has been ignored, and worked with the executive branch, which has treated us with arrogant disdain. Finally the LETF turned to the judicial branch to make the state and lawmakers comply with existing laws to fix our children’s education disaster.

The LETF asked the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund to represent Latino interests. The New Mexico Law and Poverty Center, which also filed suit, is representing Indian interests. The suits were combined to address the issues of sufficient education and specific needs of our minority-majority populations.

The “complete elimination of the achievement gap” is an imperative. A former U.S. Education secretary said that given the course we are on, this achievement gap will take more than 100 years to eliminate. This disgraceful condition demands intervention strategies, but instead the state and the Legislature have pursued pseudo reforms.

To make graduation rates look better, the state only tracks four instead of 12 years of dropouts. It uses code words like “poverty” and “English learners” as excuses of why they can’t educate us instead of incorporating culturally distinct learning styles and important family values like respect. Universities graduate 1,000 teachers each year who educate less than half of our future workforce. But it’s not teachers’ fault; higher education is failing to equip them with culturally competent skills. And it’s not the universities’ responsibility alone. All stakeholders – the community, business, government, educators and elected officials – must be included in the solutions.

There are at least 600 million reasons why we should win this suit. That’s the number of dollars that experts say education is underfunded each year. The education (portion of the state) budget under Govs. Dave Cargo and Jerry Apodaca was 55 percent. Today it makes barely makes up 44 percent.

But “sufficient education” means more than money.

We can’t continue re-arranging the deck chairs on our education Titanic or buying new chairs for this sinking ship. Hopefully the court would mandate that money first go to developing a comprehensive master plan that would include all stakeholders. The master plan could then include research, training, programs, curriculum, higher teacher salaries and incentive opportunities for anyone who can completely eliminate the achievement gap.

This writer has been involved in education reform for a long time, including the Serna vs. Portales suit, which was also a game changer. That court found problems, but it also mandated remedies to fix the problems. One of those remedies eventually resulted in bilingual education funding in every state in the nation. If, in our current suit, the court was to again prescribe the remedy to completely eliminate the achievement gap, then New Mexico might become a model for the rest of the country instead of being the laughingstock.

Adrian Martinez and every New Mexican should root for this game-changer that would touch everyone.

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