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Education lawsuit findings revealed

First District Judge Sarah Singleton. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal file)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A state judge has issued more than 600 pages of findings – crammed with testimony from experts – to support her landmark ruling that New Mexico is violating the rights of some students by failing to provide a sufficient education.

The filing by Judge Sarah Singleton is an elaboration of sorts on the opinion she issued in July – which shook up New Mexico’s educational establishment and triggered calls to sharply boost spending on public schools.

It comes as newly elected Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state lawmakers prepare to enter a critical legislative session, during which they’re expected to debate policy and funding plans aimed at addressing the judge’s findings.

Singleton’s 608-page ruling is dated Dec. 20, though it only recently appeared in the online court file. It’s filled with citations to expert testimony and other data that support her ruling that New Mexico is failing to provide a sufficient education for all children, a right guaranteed by the state Constitution.

Her decision focuses largely on at-risk students, such as children who come from low-income homes or are English-language learners, Native Americans or have a disability. They often start school behind or face other challenges, she said, but they can achieve at high levels academically, like any other students, if programs with a track record of success are funded adequately.

Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said the judge’s findings and conclusions will help lawmakers as they work to improve the school system. Legislators and their staff, she said, are still analyzing the ruling.

“There’s some really interesting data in there,” Stewart said in an interview Tuesday.

Singleton’s ruling was already a center of debate in the Roundhouse. Lawmakers have floated the idea of boosting education spending by hundreds of millions of dollars a year.

Lujan Grisham, who took office last week, said she doesn’t plan to appeal the ruling.

She has called for universal pre-kindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds, among other steps, to improve the school system.

Singleton, who retired in 2017 but continued to hear the case as a judge pro tem, discussed pre-K extensively in her filing.

Citing expert testimony and data, the judge said New Mexico’s pre-kindergarten programs show good results – producing lasting gains in student achievement – when carried out correctly.

But they aren’t available to every student who needs them, and they aren’t always administered in a way that maintains the high quality essential to helping students, Singleton said.

In particular, she said, full-day pre-kindergarten is much more helpful for low-income families than shorter programs – both because of the extended learning time and the convenience of allowing parents to drop off their children for the day while they go to work.

Now, most of the children who participate in state-funded pre-kindergarten go to half-day programs.

There’s evidence, Singleton said, that pre-K can wipe out half the achievement gap between low-income students and others. Children who participate in pre-kindergarten show up to school ready to learn from the first day, and there are lasting effects through at least third grade, according to her ruling.

“Research shows that early childhood education, such as Pre-K programs, are crucial to address the achievement gaps between low-income and non-low income students, as well as with students of color, and ELL students,” Singleton said in her ruling.

Ernest Herrera, a staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the judge’s decision shows that New Mexico’s education system isn’t living up to the guarantees made by the state Constitution and state law.

“Our case was not about just griping about money or teachers’ pay or something that can be reduced to a dollar amount,” he said Tuesday. “We carefully proved that the system is failing at various levels.”

Herrera represented some of the children and parents who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Much of the debate will now shift from the courts to the Roundhouse.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, said legislative leaders will roll out a proposed plan for complying with the judge’s ruling on Monday, the day before a 60-day session begins.

“It will be a significant increase in funding for public education,” Wirth said, adding that the proposed legislation will also include other elements.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House appropriations committee, said an increase in teacher salaries will be part of a legislative budget recommendation unveiled next week.

Minimum starting teacher pay in New Mexico is at $36,000 annually after being increased last year, with higher pay levels set up for more experienced educators.

But Lundstrom said some advocates involved in the recent litigation over state education spending levels have requested “unreasonable” funding levels for public schools in response to the judge’s ruling.

Roxanne Mitchell of Educators for Elevating New Mexico, a group of educators, principals and education assistants, said money alone isn’t the right approach. Her organization has been critical of Lujan Grisham’s plan to drop the PARCC exam and replace it with a new assessment.

“We are staunch supporters of higher teacher salaries and more funding for public schools,” she said, “but when New Mexico’s accountability and measurement systems are tampered with or when state officials lower the bar, it undermines the very spirit of the case. Let’s invest more in state resources, while having a consistent way to assess student progress as well.”

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