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Legislators hear ‘remedies’ for education lawsuit findings

The Legislative Education Study Committee hears recommendations Friday following a judge’s ruling that the state is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students. From left, an attorney with Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Ernest Herrera, and New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty lawyers Lauren Winkler, Gail Evans and Preston Sanchez presented their potential remedies. 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Nixing major systems like teacher evaluations, changing the way the state calculates funding for at-risk students and overhauling the Public Education Department.

These were some of the recommendations presented to the Legislative Education Study Committee by lawyers, who represented plaintiffs in a landmark lawsuit that led to a ruling the state violated the constitutional right to a sufficient education for at-risk students.

As legislators weigh potential solutions, the April deadline to make progress looms.

At Hawthorne Elementary School on Friday, Gail Evans, Lauren Winkler and Preston Sanchez, attorneys at New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, and Ernest Herrera with Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, presented two similar plans on how to achieve that progress.

Recommendations included adequately funding and expanding pre-K, extending learning programs to create culturally relevant curricula standards, getting rid of current teacher evaluations.

Teacher shortages – a national and statewide problem – were acknowledged, with plans suggesting ways to recruit and retain educators.

Evans wanted to see the state require a total of 10 days of professional development and collaboration for teachers and mandate all teachers be endorsed to teach English as a second language.

An increase in teacher pay was also put on the table, aiming to make New Mexico’s salaries competitive with surrounding states.

The minimum pay for starting teachers was already increased this year from $34,000 to $36,000 per year under a budget bill passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, but the center’s plan would raise it to a $45,000 foundation.

Both the MALDEF and the center think the Legislature should expand the definition of at-risk students – to any student qualifying for free and reduced lunch – increase the amount of funding for such students and require oversight to ensure that funding is used appropriately.

The Public Education Department would look much different under the proposed changes, too, as lawyers want to restructure the PED to ensure “multicultural and linguistically appropriate education.”

And they want a law enforced that outlines the qualifications for future PED secretaries, including requiring expertise in multicultural education.

“The law is already there, it’s a matter of having a Public Education Department with the expertise and the ability to provide districts support,” Evans said.

PED, which appealed the decision earlier this summer, could not be reached for comment.

Evans said the team has been working with school districts, experts and stakeholders when creating the 24-page plan.

State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the LESC, said the committee will also continue to gather input ahead of offering legislation that deals with the lawsuit. Other than clarifying questions or praise for the judge’s ruling, LESC members didn’t indicate a stance on the suggestions. Stewart said she suspects that’s because the lawsuit is ongoing, saying there were questions she had but didn’t “feel comfortable asking.” Ultimately, she said the committee will look at their remedies and see what can be moved forward with.

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