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Education deadline arrives for New Mexico

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico faces a court-ordered deadline today to develop a plan that ensures all students get the sufficient public education they’re guaranteed under the state Constitution.

But it doesn’t sound like anyone will be to court right away.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state lawmakers this year agreed on a budget plan that will infuse an extra $447 million into public schools, an increase of 16%. The state also approved a variety of other education measures to extend the school year, ramp up teacher pay and revise the accountability system for schools.

At least some of the plaintiffs who sued the state say the funding plan still fails to meet the constitutional requirement that a sufficient public education be available to all children in the state.

But they also intend to take more time to evaluate the state’s plan and its impact on students.

Maria Archuleta of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents some of the plaintiffs, said the budget plan adopted by lawmakers doesn’t take effect until July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.

The Center on Law and Poverty “won’t file anything until we get a clearer view of the impact of the education legislation,” she said in a written statement. “The money comes through in July but it will like take longer than that to really see what is going on.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2014, resulted in a landmark court decision last year by state Judge Sarah Singleton – who found the state is violating the constitutional rights of “at-risk students” by failing to provide them with a sufficient education.

Her ruling focused on children from low-income families and children who have disabilities, are Native American or are English language learners.

In July, Singleton ruled that the state failed to provide sufficient funding to school districts and that the state Public Education Department had failed to ensure the money is well-spent to meet the needs of at-risk students.

And she gave the state a mid-April deadline – today – to provide schools with the necessary resources.

But no immediate hearing is scheduled to determine the state’s compliance.

Instead, under Singleton’s most recent judgment in the case, anyone can file a report after today explaining whether the state is in compliance with her orders – and then she will address any issues raised by the filing.

Senate Majority Whip Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat who jointly sponsored some of this year’s education legislation, said she hopes the judge, when asked, will agree that the state made a “good-faith effort” to address her ruling.

More work, in any case, will be necessary to improve New Mexico’s schools, Stewart said.

“This was a good first step,” she said in an interview Friday, “but it’s certainly not the end of it.”

The state and its school districts are entering a critical period. Districts are now crafting their budgets for the coming year, based on the state funding and other education legislation.

It’s important, Stewart said, to see how the changes made at the state level will play out in the individual districts, where educators on the front lines will be working to improve student outcomes.

“It’s not an overnight issue for these schools,” she said. “You can’t starve districts for 10 years and then think in one year, things will be different.”

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who took office Jan. 1, after the case was decided, said in March that her administration will “litigate aggressively” in the coming months to try to avoid long-term court oversight of the state’s public schools.

At least one question is already before the court – centering on how much the state should pay the plaintiffs as a reimbursement for their costs.

Attorneys for each set of plaintiffs are seeking state reimbursement for the hiring of expert witnesses and to cover other expenses.

All told, the state could be liable for up to $449,000 in costs, though state attorneys are fighting the figure.