Yazzie plaintiffs in landmark case: NM still failing students

A classroom in the APS Aztec Special Education Complex. A court ruled last year that New Mexico isn’t doing enough for at-risk students, and some plaintiffs in the case are asking a judge to order state officials to come up with a plan. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

One group of plaintiffs in a landmark education ruling asked the court Wednesday to require the state to develop and pay for a plan that details how New Mexico will provide students with a sufficient education.

The motion follows a ruling from over a year ago in the Yazzie-Martinez case that found the state wasn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education to all students, especially students considered “at risk.”

“Despite this massive, transformational ruling from the court over a year ago, defendants continue to go without a comprehensive plan—which includes the necessary programs and services, along with funding requirements, an implementation timeframe and accountability measures—to come into compliance with its constitutional obligation to provide all students with a sufficient education,” the motion states.

Originally, the state had until April 15 to make progress. With that deadline past, plaintiffs want the judge to order the state to create a state-wide plan within 60 days.

The motion also requests the state take action by March 15, 2020, to direct resources for at-risk students.

In the motion filed in 1st Judicial District Court, one group of plaintiffs — known as the Yazzie plaintiffs, named after one of the families in the case — argued that the state is still failing students despite increased education spending.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Legislature authorized a 16% funding boost for public schools this year, or an extra $446 million. That bump included doubling the amount of money that flows to school districts to help at-risk students.

But the plaintiffs argue most of the money went to educator pay raises.

“Students continue to languish in schools that do not have basic instructional materials, sufficient transportation, technology, programs, and services required to ensure that students who are considered ‘at-risk’ are prepared for college or career,” the motion states.

Analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee — a bipartisan group of lawmakers — said this week that it isn’t clear whether the districts are spending the new funding as intended. They said school districts, in general, appear to be budgeting more for teacher salaries this year than they actually need.

Districts, in turn, have argued that the state-mandated teacher pay raises have consumed much of the funding increase they received this year.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund also filed a motion Wednesday questioning whether New Mexico has complied with court orders to ensure all students receive a sufficient education.

Ernest Herrera, an attorney for MALDEF, said the group of plaintiffs he represents is asking the court to establish a 120-day schedule that would allow the parties in the case to request records and conduct depositions to determine whether New Mexico is meeting its legal obligations.

In particular, he said, the plaintiffs want to see whether the extra funding authorized for public schools this year is actually reaching the students who need it the most.

They also hope to examine whether the state has made effective changes in programs to better serve at-risk students, such as English language learners, children with disabilities and youth from low-income homes.

“It’s not clear that some of the new funding is going to reach those at-risk students,” Herrera said in an interview. “We definitely have some concerns about whether they have complied with the court’s order, and we want to find out more.”

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