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Questions surround ruling on NM education funding

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

A judge’s ruling that New Mexico has not been meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for all students — especially those characterized as at-risk — continued to reverberate Monday, with plaintiffs in the landmark lawsuit hailing it as a harbinger of a fairer K-12 system.

But the Public Education Department told the Journal the state plans to appeal.

“Unfortunately the judge missed the boat with this ruling,” PED Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski wrote in a statement, citing increases in education spending that he said “is now at an all-time high.”

That spending was also highlighted by some lawmakers, who voiced concern about how the Legislature will comply with the judge’s ruling in a state that already spends 44 percent of its budget, or roughly $2.8 billion for the current fiscal year, on public schools.

“We have no direction from the courts other than ‘fix it,’ ” said Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

He also said lawmakers should consider accountability measures as part of any plan, and not just pump more money into a state funding formula that divvies up education dollars to the state’s 89 school districts based on enrollment, student demographics and other factors.

“Public school districts that are applauding that they’re going to get more funding can expect to have their budgets scrutinized,” Smith told the Journal.

District Judge Sarah Singleton’s decision says that the state must come up with a plan by April to meet certain deficiencies identified by the court.

PED has until mid-August to officially file an appeal.

At a news conference Monday at Washington Middle School Park in Albuquerque, plaintiffs in the case, in which two lawsuits were consolidated into one, praised the judge’s ruling.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia tells a news conference Monday in Albuquerque, “It’s about damn time we do what’s right for our kids.” (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, a former Cabinet secretary of the Public Education Department, said the case addresses basic classroom needs, such as textbooks and teacher salaries, adding that schools aren’t asking for “bells and whistles.”

“I feel somewhat saddened by the generations lost,” she said. “It’s about damn time we do what’s right for our kids.”

Lauren Winkler, an attorney for one of the plaintiffs in the case, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said the state has nine months to do “what it has been required to do all along.”

“The state has been starving its public schools,” she said.

New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorney Lauren Winkler calls the ruling “an end of injustice.” (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Meanwhile, Ernest Herrera, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the other organization involved in the case, stressed it was not just about money, but also about the necessity for a monitoring system to ensure the state is meeting its constitutional responsibility to students.

The judge has maintained jurisdiction over the case, meaning Singleton will determine whether the reformed system is up to standard. There could be fines or other penalties if the state doesn’t meet requirements.

Teacher pay

Although Singleton did not stipulate how much money the state should spend to ensure all students get an adequate education, the ruling’s budgetary implications could be a major topic of debate during next year’s 60-day legislative session.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, a retired schoolteacher, said Monday that it would be a mistake to scrap the state’s current funding formula.

But she said she would support paying more money to teachers and overhauling the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“We’ve lost some excellent teachers because of that,” she said.

After several cash-lean years, lawmakers earlier this year increased K-12 spending by 4 percent — or about $107 million — for the budget year that started July 1.

As part of that increase, legislators appropriated enough money to boost teachers’ salaries by 2.5 percent and increase minimum starting teacher pay to $36,000 a year. They also increased the amount of money that goes toward programs for at-risk students by $22.5 million.

Smith, who was called to testify during last year’s trial on the funding lawsuit, said Monday that the judge did not appear to acknowledge the Legislature’s recent efforts in those areas.

He also said the issue is likely to overshadow other topics during the 2019 legislative session, which will begin shortly after a new governor takes office in January.

“Gun control and marijuana and all of those issues are going to have to take a back seat to education funding,” Smith said.

Some lawmakers have applauded the ruling, which comes at a time when state revenue levels are surging due to skyrocketing oil production levels in southeastern New Mexico.

“This lawsuit speaks volumes about how much we need to do for our children —and particularly for children living in poverty,” said Rep. Javier Martínez, an Albuquerque Democrat. “Our children deserve the opportunity for a great education —from early childhood through high school and beyond —regardless of where they grow up.”

At-risk students

In New Mexico, 71.6 percent of the state’s public school students come from low-income families, and 14.4 percent are English-language learners, according to the judge’s ruling.

In addition, 14.8 percent of students have disabilities, and 10.6 percent are Native American. Both groups have been characterized as at-risk.

The judge said in her decision that expert testimony showed the PED did not provide appropriate instructional materials for Native American students and that even high-performing districts could benefit from more resources.

Singleton also addressed proficiency rates for Native American students, saying that in the past three years, those students’ reading proficiency was at 17.6 percent and their math proficiency was at 10.4 percent.

When scores on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test were released this month, Gov. Susana Martinez and Ruszkowski specifically highlighted advancements made by Native American students.

“We are seeing significant student achievement gains — with 13,000 more students on grade-level in reading and 11,000 more students on grade-level in math since 2015 — including the biggest academic gains ever for Native American students,” Ruszkowski wrote in Monday’s statement.

Regis Pecos, co-director of the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School, said the judge’s decision represents a momentous opportunity.

“This is historic. This is monumental. This is a landmark decision,” he said, adding that the decision marks a shift away from blaming students.

Kara Bobroff, executive director of Native American Community Academy, said she is excited and ready to see the ruling translated into the classroom.

“Things are no longer going to be fragmented,” she said.

Bobroff also said the decision and how the community collaborates to put it into practice could serve as a model for other Native American students nationwide.

Albuquerque Public Schools spokeswoman Monica Armenta told the Journal when the ruling was announced that the district is “grateful to individuals who fought for our students.”

“This decision has the power to positively change the future for all New Mexico students who depend on public education,” she told the Journal.

New Mexico was ranked next to last by the 2018 Quality Counts report, done by Education Week, but Winkler said New Mexico’s students are just as capable as their counterparts across the country.

“These are not achievement gaps,” she said. “These are opportunity gaps.”

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