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It’s been four years since a landmark decision in the Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit found that New Mexico was violating the rights of “at-risk” students to a sufficient education.
The state Legislature has made over $1 billion in investments since the ruling identified needs in the education of Indigenous students, English learners, those who are economically disadvantaged and those with disabilities, Legislative Education Study Committee Deputy Director John Sena said during a Thursday morning meeting.
But while New Mexico has made some progress, it’s uncertain whether lawmakers’ investments have paid off.
“In part because of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear whether New Mexico students – and particularly those named in the lawsuit – are any better off,” he said.
Pointing to several areas where the state’s made improvements, Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus applauded how far New Mexico has come, but acknowledged there’s still ground to cover.
“New Mexico has come a long way in serving those most underrepresented students,” he said. “We still have a long way to go.”
Assessment results released Sept. 1 for third through fifth graders showed that English learners, students with disabilities, Indigenous students and those who are economically disadvantaged all fell behind overall statewide results in math and language arts.
Economically disadvantaged third through fifth graders came the closest to statewide averages for those grade levels, with over 26% proficiency in language arts and a little under 19% proficiency in math – eight points behind in language arts, and over seven points behind in math.
Across all grade levels, economically disadvantaged students represent almost 74% of New Mexico students.
Education officials zeroed in on New Mexico’s recent struggles with uptake in extended learning time and K-5 Plus programs. In July, analysts for the Legislative Finance Committee said the programs have seen lagging participation since 2021 and a collectively forgone $400 million in funding.
“As you know … ELTP and K-5 Plus has not worked,” Steinhaus said. “It was a great idea.”
But Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, urged patience for the programs, and argued the state is “on track” with making the changes it needs to.
“When you offer new programs, you offer new ideas, you offer new training – it just takes a long time,” she said. “K-5 Plus and extended learning were just fantastic before the pandemic, and you can almost say that about anything we’ve been doing. So I just think we should all take a big breath and realize that it is going to take us a while to make these changes.”
As it stands, the PED’s draft plan – released for public feedback in May – for action on the court’s decision in the lawsuit doesn’t pass muster in a few key areas, said Alisa Diehl, a New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty attorney working on the legal team representing the Yazzie plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
First, she said, the plan doesn’t include short- and long-term action steps that are aligned with the court’s findings or that achieve the goals it laid out for the state.
It also doesn’t detail the changes that will be needed to meet those goals, like cost and budget analyses or estimated increases in staffing. Finally, she said, the plan fails to describe how the state will measure how well the actions it’s taking are preparing students for college or careers.
“Without clearly articulated goals of what the state is trying to achieve that are aligned with the findings in this case … New Mexico will continue to fall short,” she told the LESC, adding that without such goals, the state “will continue to see a disconnect between appropriated funding and improved student outcomes.”
The PED is currently reworking the plan, Deputy Secretary Vickie Bannerman said, and aims to have its next draft done by the end of the month. The final version will be released in October or November.
In the meantime, the department is also working on a question-and-answer document addressing some of the feedback it got on the first draft.
Many of the responses focused on improving outcomes for Indigenous students, encouraging efforts to better consult with community members and calling for greater accountability for outcomes in the plan.
There are a few areas where the state’s shown improvements, Steinhaus said.
For example, Steinhaus said New Mexico has filled about 300 of its vacant teaching positions, which have been estimated by the PED to be as high as 1,000 at the end of last school year.
He also pointed to pockets throughout the state in which students have improved, though he noted that he’d picked out some of the most outstanding schools and that their growth wasn’t necessarily seen in the rest of New Mexico’s schools.
But there are several areas New Mexico needs to focus on, he said, including improving attendance, graduating more students and boosting achievement in all subjects.
A little over a third of tested New Mexico students overall are proficient in language arts, according to assessment results, and about a quarter are proficient in math.
The PED intends to bring several legislative recommendations to lawmakers for math funding, Steinhaus said, acknowledging the state’s lower achievement in math than in language arts.
Because of that gap, he said, the department has already launched a math-focused initiative. The PED has said it will assemble a 150-strong math tutoring corps, provide virtual professional development to teachers geared toward math instruction and introduce new math curricula focused on applying math concepts to careers.
Melissa Candelaria, education director at the Center on Law and Poverty and another member of the Yazzie legal team, acknowledged the work the PED has done to develop its action plan. Still, she said it’s evident that there’s still a way to go for New Mexico students.
“The student outcome data and proficiency rates need to be improved significantly, especially for the four student groups in the case,” she said. “None of us want to be in litigation forever … but if the state doesn’t come up with a solid plan to satisfy the court’s order, it may ultimately have to intervene as it has done in the past.”