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New Mexico seeks dismissal of 2018 education suit

The Roundhouse

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico is asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit that resulted in a landmark 2018 court decision – when a judge ruled the state was failing to provide a sufficient education for every student.

In a 116-page motion, including supporting documents, attorneys for the state Public Education Department say New Mexico has substantially complied with the 2018 ruling by sharply increasing education funding and revising programs aimed at helping at-risk students. The litigation has focused on students from low-income families, students with disabilities, English-language learners and Native American students.

The department did not respond to a request for comment. But state attorneys said in court that policymakers have taken action to address the court’s orders.

“The public education system currently in place in New Mexico is substantially different from the system in place during trial,” they argued in their motion to dismiss.

Attorneys for students and their families aren’t convinced.

Gail Evans, lead counsel for one group of plaintiffs, said the state has done nowhere near enough to help the students at the heart of the case, even after two legislative sessions.

“The court has to intervene when politics fail,” Evans said in a written statement, “and politics have clearly failed New Mexico’s children for decades.”

Standardized test data released by the state in July showed that just 33% of students are proficient in English and 20% are proficient in math.

Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, who oversees one of the plaintiff districts in the case, said the lawsuit and judge’s oversight are necessary to ensure the state moves forward with providing a sufficient education for all students. She echoed Evans, saying the district still doesn’t have necessary resources.

“I think it’s important that this case is not dismissed. I think it’s a good accountability measure to ensure we keep our eye on the target that we’re still quite far away from,” Garcia said.

She said the lawsuit sustains focus on improving education, despite future economic fluctuation or changes in lawmakers.

Rep. Christine Trujillo, D-Albuquerque, chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said that she thinks the lawsuit did its job in making education a priority but that it’s time for the court to back off.

“I believe that our efforts have gone a long way to address the concerns. We still have a long way to go, but I don’t think a lawsuit anymore is the direction we need to go in,” Trujillo said.

She said she believes lawmakers will continue to address the court’s ruling even without judicial oversight.

A hearing is scheduled before 1st Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson next week. He was assigned to the case last year after the death of Judge Sarah Singleton.

The class-action Yazzie/Martinez suit – named after two groups of plaintiffs, the Yazzie and Martinez families – has reshaped the political landscape for education in New Mexico in recent years.

In July 2018, Singleton ruled that New Mexico was violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide a sufficient education for them. She ordered the governor and Legislature to establish a funding system meeting constitutional requirements by spring of 2019.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who took office in 2019, and New Mexico lawmakers responded by ramping up education funding, including changes designed to provide more money for services to help at-risk students.

They’ve approved increases of about $664 million for public education over the past two legislative sessions. In their new filing, state attorneys told the judge that New Mexico now spends about 46% of its budget on education, an increase of 2.2 percentage points since the 2017 trial.

The state, its attorneys argue, has also enacted legislation aimed at improving accountability and extending learning time for students who need it most.

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