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Lawmakers scrutinize response to school suit

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In this file photo from Thursday, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart participates in a remote news conference from the Capitol to announce plans to allow some students to return to school. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Legislators bluntly questioned the state’s public education secretary Friday about whether New Mexico has improved educational outcomes enough since a landmark court decision in 2018.

The lawmakers also heard from plaintiffs in the lawsuit – who pleaded for a chance to sit down with state officials to craft a long-term plan that would preserve education funding during the pandemic and overhaul the school system.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, for his part, said his agency is working on a variety of fronts to improve public schools, including equity councils to address cultural shortcomings in curriculum and paying for programs that extend learning time.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart

Pressed to offer a grade, Stewart – who took office a year ago – said he’d give the state an “incomplete.”

“The results have not been there,” he said at one point, responding to a question on academic outcomes.

The back-and-forth came during a 3½-hour meeting of the Legislative Finance Committee, dedicated to the status of a lawsuit on the quality of New Mexico public schools. In 2018, a state district judge found the state was violating the rights of some students – including Native Americans, English language learners and those from low-income families – by failing to provide a sufficient education.

More recently, the court rejected a motion by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to dismiss the case.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said the time and money spent on litigation would be better applied to improving public schools. He questioned whether the Public Education Department – which has an unfilled position for Native American education – is adequately prepared to work with tribal leaders.

“We’ve wasted a lot of time,” he said of state attempts to contest court decisions.

Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, offered a similarly harsh assessment. Lawmakers have ramped up education spending, he said, but without enough information to ensure the money is spent effectively.

“We have no accountability from PED,” he said.

Stewart, by contrast, said the department has increased its oversight of districts’ spending on at-risk students. He also noted that much of the emergency funding provided by the federal government has flowed directly to districts.

Furthermore, Stewart said, the state has sharply grown the funding available for programs that have a record of improving student outcomes, such as lengthening the academic year at some schools and extending learning time.

But “I know we have so much more to do on those strategic pillars,” he said.

The meeting was held in Red River, but broadcast online for the public.

Bracing for financial hit

Several lawmakers said they fear the move to remote learning during the coronavirus pandemic will hurt students from rural or low-income areas the most, given the difficulty families might have obtaining high-speed internet service.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, urged the plaintiffs in the lawsuit to push state education leaders to more quickly allow in-person classes.

“It’ll be the equivalent of losing an entire school year for some of these students,” he said.

Lujan Grisham and Stewart announced this week that elementary school students can return to school after Labor Day on a hybrid schedule – a mix of in-person and remote learning – if their home counties have low enough virus infection rates and the schools meet other requirements.

The attorneys in the lawsuit – known as the Martinez and Yazzie case, named after families in the suit – said they took no position on when schools should reopen. The decision, they said, should be left to public health experts who can better evaluate the safety risk to students and teachers.

Instead, the attorneys said, they hope legislators and PED officials will sit down with them to discuss plans to ensure every student gets an education that prepares them for college or a career. They said they want to prevent education cuts during the recession and set out specific goals to measure the state’s progress.

New Mexico is bracing for a revenue hit of $1.8 billion to $2.4 billion this fiscal year, or up to 30% less than expected.

Attorney Daniel Yohalem, who represents one group of plaintiffs in the suit, said the plaintiffs and members of the Lujan Grisham administration had started meetings last year, but they were cut off around the time the governor dismissed the previous public education secretary.

“We need comprehensive change, and we need all of the different players to be working together, which is not happening yet,” Yohalem said.

The Yazzie and Martinez cases were filed separately in 2014, but later consolidated into one lawsuit.

A complex problem

Many of New Mexico’s educational outcomes remain dismal. Just 30% of third-graders were proficient in reading in 2019, according to a presentation to lawmakers.

Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee, said the problem is complex.

New Mexico students seem to make about a year’s worth of academic progress each year, he said, but it isn’t enough to catch up because many of them arrive at kindergarten so far behind. The learning loss that occurs over the summer also appears to hit some students harder than others, Sallee said, worsening the gap in outcomes among different demographic groups.

But there are also some signs of improvement, including a high school graduation rate that has climbed to about 75%, or within 10 points of the national average. Native American students in New Mexico have made particularly strong gains, Sallee said.


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