On June 29, the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe denied a motion from the state to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez v. the State of New Mexico case, a groundbreaking education reform lawsuit that found the state guilty of violating the Education Clause, Equal Protection Clause and Due Process Clause of the New Mexico Constitution.
When the plaintiff, Wilhelmina Yazzie, first filed the lawsuit in 2014, she argued that the state had not fulfilled its duty to equally provide each public school student with a college- and career-ready education. Specific, traditionally underserved, student groups were identified, including Native American students, Hispanic students, students with disabilities, English language learners and low-income students.
In July of 2018, the court ruled in Yazzie’s favor, and ordered the state to take immediate action to address these inequities.
Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham made a motion to dismiss the case in June of this year on the grounds that the state had met all the requirements of the court’s mandate. The court denied the motion, saying that there was not sufficient proof of immediate action the state had taken to address the inequalities in the lawsuit, nor of changed outcomes resulting from those actions.
Another motion, filed by the plaintiff Yazzie, sought to impose more requirements on the state. This motion was also denied.
Last Wednesday, July 15, the NM Legislative Education Study Committee met via Zoom to discuss the Public Education Department’s goals around the Yazzie/Martinez case. Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s secretary of education, gave a presentation to the committee on the initial steps the PED is taking.
“The New Mexico Constitution recognizes a balance between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. It is important to preserve this balance. … PED filed the motion to dismiss in recognition of the constitutionally distinct roles between the branches of government as it concerns the education of our most at-risk students,” Stewart told the committee regarding the department’s reasons for trying to dismiss the case.
The next steps Stewart highlighted included investment in key programs such as bilingual literacy curricula, establishing equity councils to assess and advance compliance efforts for the groups impacted, and strengthening cross-agency communications.
“The state clearly needs the oversight from the court to transform our education system. There's three branches [of government] for a reason. But we continue to miss the mark,” said Dr. Patricia Jiménez-Latham, project manager at Transform Education New Mexico, who also presented recommendations to the committee. She made clear that the PED needs to develop a comprehensive plan to meet the court’s mandate.
In her presentation Jiménez-Latham offered many concrete recommendations and resources from her organization and from the Tribal Education Alliance to help the PED create such a plan. Her next steps included overhauling the PED budgeting process to begin with an assessment of student needs rather than with the status quo. She also recommended raising teacher pay and raising more revenue for the department with new tax policies.
“The lawsuit at this point represents a moral imperative to undo decades of institutional racism in New Mexico,” said Jiménez-Latham, who worked as a teacher in New Mexico for 17 years. “The people in our partner organizations have been working on this for decades. The state has made incremental progress, especially before COVID-19. Now the pandemic has exacerbated these opportunity gaps, especially in rural and tribal parts of New Mexico that don’t have access to internet or technology. If you think about the cuts from last year's legislative session—teachers are still underpaid. We’re still facing a teacher shortage. Because of that, too many students’ constitutional rights to a sufficient education have been violated.”
As the Public Education Department once again faces underfunding, as well as the unprecedented challenge of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic in the upcoming school year, a 4 percent salary increase for teachers was cut from the operating budget during this month’s legislative special session.
Although funding from the CARES Act will help schools with things like buying PPE for teachers, providing technology for students to safely take classes from home is not covered by the federal disaster relief fund.
In June New Mexico once again ranked last in the country in child well-being according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual report.