Trial over state of education wraps

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After two months and nearly 80 witnesses, a landmark court case that essentially put the New Mexico public education system on trial has concluded.

The consolidated lawsuit, filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argues that the state’s schools are inadequately funded, limiting access to programs and services.

This shortfall particularly harms minority, special education and low-income students, denying them their fundamental right to a quality education as outlined in the New Mexico Constitution, the lawsuit alleges.

The state maintains it provides enough money to meet the needs of students, pointing to the fact that New Mexico ranks around the middle of all states in school funding.

During the lengthy trial, each side called a variety of researchers, district administrators and state officials to testify about the impact of funding on education.

First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton, right, asks Paul Aguilar of the Public Education Department to further explain an answer given during Friday’s court session. Singleton is expected to rule sometime in the fall or winter. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Plaintiffs contend that the state’s poor educational outcomes demonstrate that many children aren’t getting the resources they need, while the Public Education Department argues that New Mexico provides adequate money, including for supplemental programs like reading coaches, pre-kindergarten and extended summer learning.

These programs are boosting test scores when they are properly implemented, according to PED.

On Friday, Paul Aguilar, deputy secretary for finance and operations, testified that some districts are managing their programs well, others are not.

“There are many who are doing a great job, but not every one,” he said.

Aguilar singled out the Gadsden and Rio Rancho school districts for praise, though Rio Rancho is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Aguilar said he is “very aware” that Rio Rancho Superintendent Sue Cleveland believes the level of funding is “dismantling” her district.

“Dr. Cleveland has been one of the leaders for more, more, more,” Aguilar said, adding that he thinks she is repeating the opinions of the New Mexico School Superintendents Association.

Cleveland had taken the stand last month and said her staff has been forced to drop programs, increase class sizes and go without materials because budgets are so tight.

“If we tell you it’s really hard, it really is,” she said.

Paul Aguilar, Deputy Secretary of Finance and Operations for the Public Education Department, answers questions during cross-examination on Friday as the eight week trial about PED and school funding concludes. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Aguilar acknowledged that PED requested $2.85 billion in education funding and ultimately was budgeted about $100 million less, but he said the state has shown its commitment to education by raising per-pupil funding steadily since 2011. This year, funding was flat.

“I come from a pretty poor community, and it’s important to me that we’re supporting all kids,” Aguilar said. “If I didn’t feel like we had sufficient funding to do that, I would say so.”

Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, pointed out that about a third of New Mexico’s schools earned a D or F in the last round of school grading. Test scores also remain low.

According to results from the PARCC standardized test released in July, only 28.6 percent of New Mexico students are proficient in English language arts and 19.7 percent in math. In 2015, the first year PARCC was administered in New Mexico, the numbers were 26.4 percent and 17.4 percent, respectively.

“Things are moving in the right direction, but there is more work to be done,” Aguilar said.

The trial concluded after Aguilar’s testimony. District Court Judge Sarah Singleton asked both sides to submit post-trial briefings in lieu of closing arguments.

Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest regional counsel, said it is clear that “the state is in denial about the educational crisis that New Mexico students face.”

“We look forward to a ruling from the court that will force the state to stop fiddling while Rome burns, and start providing equal opportunities to all students,” she said.

To PED, the case comes down to politics.

“Throughout, it has been made clear that putting our children first is about conviction, policies and practices – that’s why so many of New Mexico’s districts are currently on the rise,” PED spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said. “The political activists driving this case continually fail to recognize that this administration has put more money into our classrooms than ever before.”

New Mexico typically ranks near the middle of the nation for per-pupil spending. It placed 29th in 2016, according to the National Education Association.

Other states, like Iowa and Virginia, are spending about the same amount but seeing much better outcomes.

Bono told the Journal that she believes the case is important even if the plaintiffs don’t prevail. Lawmakers can cite the testimony to argue for more education funding, she said.

“We know that there are a lot of strong leaders on education in this state,” Bono said. “They and other community groups will keep pushing.”

Singleton is expected to rule this fall or winter.

The trial has been years in the making.

MALDEF and the center filed similar lawsuits in 2014 – Martinez v. New Mexico and Yazzie v. New Mexico – that were consolidated into one case.

Yazzie v. New Mexico includes a number of families and the Cuba, Gallup, Lake Arthur, Moriarty/Edgewood, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe school districts.

Martinez v. New Mexico includes parents and children from Albuquerque, Española, Gadsden, Las Cruces, Magdalena, Santa Fe and Zuni.

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