Yazzie plaintiffs call on state to develop transformative education plan

SANTA FE—New Mexico students still lack the basics necessary for a constitutionally sufficient education, charged the Yazzie plaintiffs of the landmark education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico in a motion filed with the First Judicial District Court today. The motion asks the court to order the state to develop, implement, and fully fund a long-term plan that will meet the state’s constitutional mandate that guarantees all public school students the opportunity to be college and career ready.

“New Mexico has a historical opportunity, and a constitutional obligation, to transform our education system by building a multicultural educational framework and providing all students the opportunities they need to be ready for college or career,” said Gail Evans, lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “It’s been almost a year and a half since the Yazzie/Martinez decision, but the state still lacks a concrete, long term plan that would put us on the right path for a constitutionally sufficient education, along with necessary funding. New Mexico’s students need action now. We are asking the court to order the state to take immediate action to comply with the court’s order.”   

In July 2018, Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the state is violating public school students’ rights—especially low-income, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities—to a sufficient and uniform education. She ordered the state to take immediate action to overhaul the state’s education system.

The 2019 New Mexico Legislature did not do enough to comply with the Yazzie/Martinez decision. As a result, school districts were unable to provide the programming and supports for at risk students like bilingual education and social services. In fact, many districts were forced to cut basic programs like reading intervention and drop-out/truancy prevention, and cannot meet the demand for pre-K programs.

“Cuba Schools serves predominantly Native American students, but we still lack the funds to provide culturally relevant curriculum and language support,” said Dr. Karen Sanchez-Griego, superintendent of Cuba Independent School District, a plaintiff in the Yazzie lawsuit. “We also can’t provide adequate programming to our students with disabilities or transportation services to get students to and from tutoring, summer school, and after-school programs. We need to make real changes to our education system now to give all our children—and our state—an opportunity to succeed.”

The motion argues that 2019 education legislation did not comply with the court order by failing to:

  • Cover basic instructional materials and technology for classrooms;
  • Ensure teaching is tailored to the unique cultural and linguistic needs of our students, including English-language learners and indigenous communities;
  • Make pre-K, summer school, after-school programs, reading specialists, and smaller class sizes available to all children who need them;
  • Ensure social services, counseling, health care and literacy specialists are available to all students who need them;
  • Invest in our educators to attract and retain new teachers and expand their qualifications, especially for special education, science, and bilingual education; and
  • Adequately increase the transportation budget to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate in after-school and summer programs.

“We still have a substandard education system for our children. Our schools not only lack the basics, they lack the essential culturally relevant resources and materials, that our children need,” said Wilhelmina Yazzie, the lead plaintiff in the case who has a son in the Gallup McKinley County Schools. “This is not acceptable. All our children deserve an equal opportunity to succeed. My hope is that the state will act upon the court’s ruling and make our children a priority. We cannot waste any more time. Our children are the future of New Mexico, and they are sacred.”

The 2019 New Mexico State Legislature increased education funding, but school districts had to spend the bulk of the increase on a much needed raise for educators. Once districts allocated funds for the modest six percent raise, they did not have enough funding for basic educational necessities that would bring the state into compliance with the court’s ruling.

The Legislature increased funding for extended learning, through the K-5 Plus and the Extended Learning programs, but ignored multiple warnings that school districts would not be able to use much of the increase due to rigid requirements imposed by the state. Many districts did not apply for funding because they determined that the money available would not cover the actual cost of the programs; the program requirements were too strict and inflexible; and they did not have time to determine whether they could implement the programs.

“We need to do what’s right for our students, and we need sufficient funding and flexibility to do it,” said Dr. V. Sue Cleveland, superintendent of Rio Rancho Public Schools, a plaintiff in the Yazzie lawsuit. “We have had to cut important instructional positions such as reading interventionists and coaches, and we remain unable to provide sufficient professional development, instructional materials, transportation, and other programs and services our kids truly need.”

Since the court’s July 2018 decision, the Yazzie plaintiffs have worked with a broad group of educators, tribal members, community groups, and school districts to craft a platform of action necessary to transform New Mexico’s educational system to address the needs of at-risk children in compliance with the court order. Most of the programs and funding in the platform, supported by plaintiffs, were blocked by legislative leaders and died in committees.

Attorneys on the case include lead counsel Gail Evans, Daniel Yohalem, and Lauren Winkler and Preston Sanchez with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/motion-yazzie-plaintiffs-motion-for-compliance-2019-10-30/

Exhibits for the motion can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/exhibits-yazzie-motion-for-compliance-2019-10-30/

The final ruling in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf