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Closing arguments filed in landmark NM education case

SANTA FE – Closing arguments were filed this week in a landmark court case that essentially put New Mexico’s public education system on trial.

Now, it’s up to a judge to issue a final ruling, which could come by as soon as this spring.

The case hinges on whether New Mexico has complied with a constitutional requirement that all public school students – especially minorities and those from low-income families – get a sufficient education.

Attorneys with two groups that filed the consolidated lawsuit, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Wednesday that a two-month trial held last summer proved the state had fallen short in that regard.

“The state is in violation of the equal protection clause of the New Mexico Constitution when it comes to our economically disadvantaged students and our English-learner students across the state,” said Ernest Herrera, a staff attorney with MALDEF.

In their closing briefs, the attorneys asked District Judge Sarah Singleton to find that the state has run afoul of the Constitution and to order state lawmakers to come up with a funding plan that ensures greater access to certain programs or services.

If the judge rules in their favor, they also asked the court to maintain jurisdiction over the case to make sure the Public Education Department complies with the order.

However, outside contract attorneys for the PED argued in their court filing that the state currently provides enough money to give sufficient opportunities to all students, citing the fact that New Mexico ranks around the middle of all states in school spending per student.

In the current budget year, K-12 spending represents 44 percent of the state’s budget – or nearly $2.7 billion.

“The record reflects that PED and the New Mexico Legislature have made and continue to make education the number one policy priority in the state,” the attorneys wrote in their brief. “And the record further reflects that no one – including plaintiffs – has established that increased funding will lead to higher student outcomes.”

But Gail Evans, legal director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said that simply spending more money would not fix the problem.

She said many students don’t have access to state-funded programs such as pre-kindergarten and K-3 Plus, which adds 25 days to the school year at low-income or poor-performing schools, that have proved effective at boosting student achievement.