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Judge denies state’s request for dismissal in education lawsuit

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A judge has denied the state of New Mexico’s request to dismiss a mammoth education lawsuit that has been at the center of public school funding and reform.

Moving forward, the state will have to comply with an examination into what it is doing to ensure an adequate education for low-income families, students with disabilities, English-language learners and Native American students.

In 2018, the late Judge Sarah Singleton found that New Mexico was failing to give these students, who make up about 80% of the state’s student population, a sufficient public education that prepared them for the workforce or for college.

“The court agrees with the plaintiff’s counsel that to dismiss this action now while implementation and compliance are merely in their initial stages would undermine the years of work by this court and the parties and leave the children of New Mexico in an educational system that may be below constitutional standards,” 1st Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson said.

The ruling means the court will retain jurisdiction over the case.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham decided not to appeal the 2018 court ruling after taking office, but said last year her administration would “litigate aggressively” in an attempt to avoid ongoing court oversight of New Mexico’s public schools. After Monday’s court ruling, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor would work to continue improving New Mexico schools.

“Just as she was prior to today’s ruling, the governor remains committed to a comprehensive restructuring and reform of New Mexico’s public education system that continues to address the systemic shortfalls outlined by the original lawsuit,” Sackett said in a statement.

In a virtual hearing, attorney Taylor Rahn, on behalf of the state, argued that it has met the court’s expectation to make substantial changes by an initial deadline and ramped up education funding to the point that it makes up 46% of the state budget. She noted at-risk funds have seen a boost, teacher recruitment has seen improvement and major educational systems, such as teacher evaluations, were shifted.

“The point of the injunction was to be a catalyst for change and that change has occurred. Continuing to exercise oversight for traditional executive and legislative functions is not required, because we got the message,” Rahn said.

The Legislature appropriated $2 million over a recent two-year period to pay attorneys and cover other legal expenses incurred as a result of the lawsuit.

Wilson agreed the state has taken steps since the ruling but said the court has to see long-term reforms by the state. Ultimately the judge sided with the Yazzie, Martinez plaintiffs’ arguments, which asserted the state’s changes aren’t remedy enough.

“Any of the state’s supposed fixes are really just promises to act,” said Ernest Herrera, counsel for the Martinez plaintiffs.

“Continuing jurisdiction of this court is necessary to ensure implementation,” he added.

Herrera told the Journal that Monday’s decision affirmed the need for systemic, long-term change within education.

“This is about changing the system and not just about how much money is going into it,” he said.

The judge is allowing the Martinez plaintiffs’ counsel to investigate whether the state is complying with the judgment. Meanwhile, a motion by the Yazzie plaintiffs to require a detailed plan was denied, though it is not off the table for the future.

Wilhelmina Yazzie, a plaintiff in the Yazzie lawsuit, said in a written statement that the state can’t be trusted to keep making changes without the court’s intervention.

“It’s time for our leaders to be courageous and make real changes for our kids. All across the country, people are standing up against the inequities caused by hundreds of years of systemic racism. It’s time for our state to stop fighting the lawsuit and instead address the inequities in our schools,” she said.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said after Monday’s ruling that New Mexico students – including Native Americans – were the real winners of the judge’s decision.

He said he had already been in touch with families involved in the lawsuit and top-ranking lawmakers about considering possible changes to the state’s public education system during the 2021 legislative session.

“We recognize that we have a true opportunity now … to prove to our state and our children that we hold them in high regard and that their education isn’t just lip service,” Lente said.

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