SANTA FE – New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education, a state judge ruled Friday in a blistering, landmark decision.
Judge Sarah Singleton ordered the governor and Legislature to establish a funding system that meets constitutional requirements by April 15 next year.
In the 75-page decision, Singleton rejected arguments by Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration that the education system is improving and doesn’t necessarily need more funding. She also turned back arguments that the state was doing the best with what it had.
As “a legal matter,” Singleton wrote, “lack of funds is not a defense to providing constitutional rights.”
And it’s clear that many students aren’t receiving the education they should, she said.
The evidence at trial “proves that the vast majority of New Mexico’s at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career,” Singleton said. “Indeed, overall New Mexico children rank at the very bottom in the country for educational achievement.”
A spokeswoman for the state Public Education Department said the department “is in the process of reviewing the opinion.”
She wouldn’t address whether the state planned to appeal the decision.
State Sen. Mimi Stewart, an Albuquerque Democrat and chairwoman of the Legislative Education Study Committee, said the judge “wasn’t prescriptive” in what has to happen next, but rather left it to lawmakers and the governor to develop a plan.
But the solution, she said, will have to address teacher salaries and resources for Native American youth.
“I’m thankful for this judge telling us to get our acts together,” Stewart told the Journal.
Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said she was pleased with the ruling.
“Public educators see the effects from the prolonged reduction of funding to our schools and educational institutions on a daily basis,” she said in a written statement. “We hope the incoming administration and the legislature will use this ruling as a wake up call to act on behalf of our students, their families, educators, and the well being of public education in our state.”
Lack of teachers, technology
The judge, for her part, said New Mexico doesn’t have enough teachers. There was also testimony that New Mexico teachers are among the lowest paid in the country, she said.
“The evidence shows that school districts do not have the funds to pay for all the teachers they need,” Singleton wrote. “Gadsden, one of the better performing school districts in the state, has had to eliminate over 53 classroom positions and 15 essential teachers since 2008.”
The judge also faulted the lack of access to technology in rural districts and suggested the state teacher evaluation system “may be contributing to the lower quality of teachers in high-need schools.”
“In general,” Singleton said, “punitive teacher evaluation systems that penalize teachers for working in high-need schools contribute to problem in this category of schools.”
And she wasn’t persuaded by arguments that no new funding is needed because at-risk student performances are improving.
“The at-risk students are still not attaining proficiency at the rate of non at-risk students,” Singleton said, “and the programs being lauded by PED are not changing this picture.”
Her ruling came after a nearly two-month trial wrapped up last August. Nearly 80 witnesses testified.
The consolidated lawsuit, filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, argued that the state’s schools are inadequately funded.
The case is listed under Yazzie v. state of New Mexico and Martinez v. state of New Mexico.
It centers on a right, guaranteed by the state constitution, to a sufficient education for all children.
The lawsuit alleged a lack of resources and services to help students, particularly youngsters from low-income families, students of color – including Native Americans – English-language learners and students with disabilities
“My son just tested as gifted, but his school doesn’t have the curriculum or resources to push him to his full potential,” James Martinez, a plaintiff in the Yazzie lawsuit, said in a written statement. “The kids who are falling behind have it much worse. All kids should have the same opportunity to learn, progress, and succeed.”
Start of planning
House Appropriations and Finance Committee Chairwoman Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, called on PED to immediately begin putting together a plan to comply with the judge’s ruling.
The state is in decent financial position to earmark more money for public education, she said, but she cautioned much of a recent revenue uptick stems from a spike in oil production in southeast New Mexico.
“Whatever we come up with, I hope we have the steady revenue stream to keep it going so we don’t end up back in court,” Lundstrom said.
Stewart said she wasn’t surprised by Friday’s decision.
“I’ve talked to my other colleagues and no one is surprised and it’s a bit shameful none of us are surprised,” she said.
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