With a billion dollars up for grabs and a stinging District Court decision to live up to, education is front and center at the 2019 New Mexico Legislature.
In a milestone decision in a consolidated lawsuit case, Yazzie/Martinez et al v State of New Mexico, First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that New Mexico public schools violate a constitutional right to an adequate education, of a broad swath of students considered “at risk,” by failing to provide them with an adequate education.
The 2014 lawsuit was filed by dozens of plaintiffs, including several school districts, and took on, in part, former Gov. Susanna Martinez and her public education administration for, among other things, inadequate funding for low income students, Native American students, English learners, special needs and other marginalized students.
Attorneys for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund argued the plaintiff’s case during a summer of 2017 trial. Judge Singleton said many things in her July 2018 ruling, and in her December 2018 600-plus pages of “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law.” The bottom line: The state must sufficiently and comprehensively fund public schools so that every student has an equal opportunity to succeed, and she ruled that the state constitution makes it so. “A sufficient education is a right protected by the New Mexico Constitution,” Singleton ruled. Singleton said a plan must be in place by April 2019.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said her administration will not appeal the ruling. That’s a good thing because the state has already spent more than $4 million in legal fees defending itself against the obvious. Per the Anne E. Casey Foundation, New Mexico was recently ranked as the worst state overall to be a child. One out of every 10 students is Native American, 3 out of 4 are low income, 1 in 7 are disabled, and 1 in 7 are English language learners.
Hearings are underway for both House and Senate versions of an overall education bill. These two bills are bipartisan and similar. These bills, and many others, have or will be introduced to address and implement Judge Singleton’s rulings.
With that billion dollars in new oil and gas money burning a hole in her pocket, Gov. Lujan Grisham has said she wants to increase public education spending by $500 million. This, she says, will begin to address the wide spectrum of education shortfalls across the state’s 89 public school districts and its 97 public charter schools. These needs include decades old crumbling infrastructure, low teacher pay, the lack of up-to-date classroom supplies like enough current textbooks and technology, and the list goes on and on.
Interestingly, both bills propose trying to rein in the number of charter school students statewide. Senate Bill 1 wants to cap enrollment to 27,000 just slightly more than the approximately 26,500 currently enrolled in charter schools statewide. There are about 330,000 students total enrolled in public schools. The Senate bill also proposes to set the maximum enrollment for individual charter schools based on the schools’ performance.
House Bill 5 proposes a moratorium on opening any new charter schools. Charter school proponents are pushing back, and say this limits viable and practical options for the very students the state is charged by the District Court to educate, within New Mexico’s unique cultural and economic milieu. Opponents say charter schools get a disproportionate amount of money over other public schools.
These sweeping education bills are based on the Transform Education NM Platform, a comprehensive plan devised by many stakeholders to repair our schools. The bills call for a multicultural and bilingual framework, changes in school funding formulas, look to extend state funded pre-K from half day to a full day, more funding for grades K through 5, create a longer school day overall, and these are just a few of the proposals. The bills could go through significant changes before they hear a vote in their respective houses. Plaintiff attorneys in the Singleton decision have said that these bills are a start to meeting the judge’s mandate.
As we hit our press deadline, House and Senate members have filed at least 65 bills, memorials and resolutions that impact education. Lawmakers have until Feb. 14 to introduce bills, and the session ends March 16.
Some of the other legislative proposals filed so far include: more funding for school based health centers; taking a hard look at school armed security; increased after school programs; addressing the need for seat belts in school buses; standardizing bathroom policies to incorporate all genders; medical marijuana use for students while at school; help for student diabetes management; increased funding for reading, STEM and other initiatives; Native American teacher incentive pay, and many other pieces of legislation addressing the state’s unique public education needs.
These more peripheral bills do not include capital outlay requests that schools submit to help shore up crumbling school buildings. Capital outlay bills are usually bundled together in what is called the “pork barrel” bill, referencing lawmakers bringing home the bacon to their constituents.
Otto von Bismarck once said, “If you like laws and sausages, you should never watch either one being made.” We here at Weekly Alibi tend to disagree with the autocrat. Both need vigorous watching because you never know when something sneaky will happen. So with that in mind, the state has a user friendly website at nmlegis.gov with daily calendars, links to search legislation filed and other important information to help keep citizens informed. And of course, keep your eyes on Weekly Alibi for weekly updates.