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Editorial: Returning to court won’t help NM kids get better education

There’s an old adage that money can’t buy happiness.

And except for teachers who received well-deserved raises, that certainly appears to be the case when it comes to an additional $446 million in new funding lawmakers and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham approved for K-12 public education in New Mexico this year – a whopping 16% increase that boosted the public schools’ share of the state’s $7 billion budget to about 47%.

For starters, plaintiffs who won the landmark Yazzie/Martinez education-funding lawsuit are already back in court. They say the state has failed miserably in developing a comprehensive plan establishing the necessary programs and services required to comply with the court’s ruling. (The state unfortunately chose not to appeal the decision by pro-tem Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe that New Mexico was failing its constitutional requirements to provide a sufficient education for English learners, Native Americans, low-income and other at-risk students.)

Much of the new money, the plaintiffs argue, went to teacher salaries with little or nothing done to address the underlying issues that prompted their lawsuit.

One group of plaintiffs wants the state to develop – and pay for – a detailed plan that outlines how New Mexico will provide students with a sufficient education. Predictably, another plaintiffs’ group is asking the court to allow a new round of discovery, records requests and depositions. Nothing like more litigation to help the children. Then again, to a hammer everything looks like a nail.

And everyone has their own definition of “sufficient.”

The plaintiffs say they tried to work with the state to develop a plan but were told to take a hike by the Public Education Department. They say PED cut off the discussions and told them to go back to court if they didn’t like it.

Meanwhile, legislative analysts have serious heartburn over how the additional $446 million – yes, those are taxpayer dollars even if they are funded by the oil and gas boom – is being spent. About $253 million was specifically targeted at at-risk students – double the previous amount.

One major concern is how to get more districts to participate more fully in initiatives that extend learning time, often by adding days to the beginning of the school year for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Districts had very little time to implement the program – Deming made K-5 Plus part of its regular school calendar, but Albuquerque Public Schools, the largest district in the state by far, had a harder time turning the ship and gave up $12 million in state funding as a result.

Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup and chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, says lawmakers may take a firmer hand in directing how school districts spend the money that flows to them through complex formulas. State administrators and lawmakers, she says, need a clear standard for measuring the progress of school districts. She is 100% correct.

Of course, that will be a bigger challenge as the state eliminated the previous testing used to measure student growth, eliminated student-achievement from teacher evaluations and did away with easy-to-understand school grades.

District Judge Matthew Wilson of Santa Fe, who inherited the complex case after Singleton died earlier this year, will oversee the legal fight. Ultimately, he might be the only person the state has to satisfy in his new position as de facto overseer of public education in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, Lundstrom is also correct when she says, “We put a heck of a lot of money into this.” But so far, “happiness” has remained elusive, despite hundreds of millions of added dollars.

What is now needed are clear standards for measuring whether the state and its students are moving forward, and support for districts so they can participate in the new initiatives.

What is not needed – certainly not this early – is more court battles.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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