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Filing: State not doing enough for at-risk students

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

A “patchwork system of education and inadequate funding.”

That’s how plaintiffs in a monumental education lawsuit described the state’s latest efforts to comply with the court ruling in an update filed on Friday.

They say the state and lawmakers still have not done enough to ensure all students have access to an adequate education – a right guaranteed under the state constitution.

But the court filing is not calling for a judge to intervene.

Last summer, a judge ruled New Mexico was not providing a uniform and sufficient education for all children, especially those who are considered “at-risk,” such as students who live in low-income households, Native American students and English language learners. The state and its Public Education Department had until April 15 to make changes and come into compliance.

The plaintiffs’ latest notice to the court, which was filed in 1st Judicial District Court, follows the 2019 legislative session that resulted in a $447 million spending infusion for public schools.

Yazzie plaintiffs in the “Yazzie-Martinez” lawsuit – filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund in 2014 – say the 16 percent spending increase at the Roundhouse was not enough and argues boosts in education funding primarily went to pay for mandated educator salary increases.

The Legislature authorized pay raises of at least 6 percent for teachers and other school staff for the coming school year and set starting teacher pay at a minimum of $41,000 per year.

“The legislature failed to sufficiently fund the education budget to ensure schools had sufficient resources for their at-risk students,” the document says.

The update notes an uptick in an at-risk factor within the state’s school funding formula and highlights monies set aside for extended learning programs, but, ultimately says more needs to be done to make sure kids have the needed teachers, programs and services.

Lauren Winkler, a staff attorney at the Center on Law and Poverty, told the Journal that the Yazzie plaintiff attorneys tracked 23 school districts, including Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Rio Rancho, after the session. She said they found that districts are still not able to provide all students with a sufficient education.

Lauren Winkler

“As a result of this extensive research, plaintiffs have determined that the outcome of the 2019 Legislative Session was anything but the ‘moonshot’ as claimed by legislative leadership,” the filing says. “Instead, after making required raises, districts are left with little or no money to implement additional programming, supports and services for at-risk students.”

But the plaintiffs aren’t asking the judge to intervene right now. Rather, Winkler said the update serves as a check-in to document what’s happened since the final judgment. In fact, she said the plaintiffs are working with the PED and are working on an implementation plan to remedy the judge’s findings.

“As long as we are doing that, I think this can get resolved much sooner. If we have to go back to court, it can take decades for these cases to be settled and … it can take a long time for progress to actually happen,” Winkler told the Journal.

Winkler said there is not a price tag on the implementation plan, which is in progress.

In a statement emailed to the Journal, PED Secretary of Education Karen Trujillo said that the department is working on addressing the findings and noted efforts such as new policies to help track funding.

Karen Trujillo

“To be clear: We understand the urgency for our students and we are unequivocally committed to working collaboratively and creatively to provide every single New Mexico child with the resources they need to be successful. That work will continue,” her statement read in part.

Attached to the case status is the Yazzie plaintiffs’ 29-page proposal that shows short-term and long-term strategies, which Winkler says will be brought to the PED as the plaintiffs work with the department.

The lawyer said it boils down to both policy and spending.

“What’s important is that education policy comes first, determining what students need and what programs, services and supports need to be in place to ensure that students have those educational opportunities that the judge ruled is their constitutional right, needs to be done first. And then figuring out what it’s going to cost to get there is next,” she said.

Legislative Education Study Committee Chair Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, said she agrees that the state is not giving enough money to education and noted the bulk of spending was directed to educator salary increases.

While Rep. Trujillo hadn’t yet read the case status, she said, in general, she thinks spending is the core of the issue over policy.

“There was a lot of money that was generated this year and I think we did a good job with teachers raises but what ended up happening is school districts couldn’t implement the at-risk programs and a variety of programs like that because there was not enough money,” she said. “I don’t think we need new policy but what we need is an influx of new money.”

In the end, the plaintiffs said more needs to be done, adding that the court ruling pointed to specific areas that needed to be overhauled, including pre-kindergarten and smaller class sizes.

“The court was quite clear about what needed to be done. But instead of doing these things, the legislature again simply followed its old mode of operation: it took last year’s budget, made some adjustments, with some steps forward and some steps backwards, and, in the end, left us with a patchwork system of education and inadequate funding that continues to fail our students,” the document says.

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