Judge rules New Mexico violates public school students’ constitutional right to sufficient educational opportunities

SANTA FE, NM – July 20, 2018 – A state court ruled today that New Mexico’s education system violates the state constitution because it fails to provide students a sufficient public education.

Families and school districts in the consolidated lawsuit Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Martinez v. State of New Mexico sued the state for failing to provide public school students with a sufficient education as mandated by the state’s constitution. The lawsuit challenged the state’s arbitrary and inadequate funding of public schools as well as its failure to provide students with the programs and services needed to be college, career and civic ready. It alleged that the lack of necessary monitoring and oversight deprived students of the resources and services they need to succeed—particularly low-income, students of color, including Native American, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

The plaintiffs are represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) and MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund).

“We are extremely gratified that the court has ruled in favor of children and families and recognizes the State’s failure to provide all of New Mexico’s public school students a sufficient education,” said Ernest Herrera, a MALDEF staff attorney. “Now, the State can no longer deny its legal responsibility to all New Mexico’s students.”

In her ruling, First Judicial District Court Judge Sarah Singleton affirmed the plaintiffs’ claims, stating:

“Therefore, the Defendants will be given until April 15, 2019, to take immediate steps to ensure that New Mexico schools have the resources necessary to give at-risk students the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education that prepares them for college and career. Reforms to the current system of financing public education and managing schools should address the shortcomings of the current system by ensuring, as a part of that process, that every public school in New Mexico would have the resources necessary for providing the opportunity for a sufficient education for all at-risk students.”

Gail Evans, lead counsel on the case for the Center, shared, “We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of children across New Mexico, in this generation and the next, to ensure the court’s ruling is implemented without delay. Now is the opportunity to transform public schools—the state knows what it needs to make available to our students: a quality education that is culturally and linguistically responsive and the necessary resources to make opportunities possible for all children who need them.”

During the eight-week trial, which began in June 2017, educational experts provided the Court testimony about the needs of New Mexico students and the systemic deficiencies undermining student success. Many school superintendents testified that their districts lack resources, quality programs, and state support, which also includes collaboration between districts and tribal communities.

“I just want my son to be prepared for life, to get a good job, learn strong ethics, and get life skills,” said James Martinez, a plaintiff in the Yazzie case. “My son just tested as gifted, but his school doesn’t have the curriculum or resources to push him to his full potential. The kids who are falling behind have it much worse. All kids should have the same opportunity to learn, progress, and succeed. The only way we can do that is by fixing our public schools and giving all kids a chance.”

Seventy percent of New Mexico students cannot read or write at grade level, 80 percent cannot do math at grade level and graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department. Witnesses also testified that the state fails to address the needs of English-language learners by failing to provide sufficient access to quality bilingual/multicultural education programs.

During the trial, the State’s experts conceded that students at high-poverty schools have less access to effective teachers, yet the State has failed to provide adequate resources to improve teacher training, compensation, recruitment and retention.

The Martinez lawsuit was brought on behalf of parents and public school children from Española, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Zuni, Magdalena, Las Cruces and Gadsden, including students who are English-language learners, Native American, economically disadvantaged or disabled. It was filed in April 2014 by MALDEF following extensive discussions with community groups, local leaders, and parents in New Mexico concerning chronic achievement gaps on standardized tests and other systemic failures. The state sought to dismiss the case but the court in Martinez denied the request, and ruled for the first time in New Mexico’s history that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution.

The Center’s Yazzie lawsuit was filed in March 2014 on behalf of a group of families and school districts including Gallup-McKinley, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Cuba, Moriarty/Edgewood, and Lake Arthur. The families represented have children who are English-language learners, Native American, Hispanic, low-income and have been negatively impacted by the lack of resources provided to New Mexico public schools.

A copy of the decision can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/order-decison-2018-07-20/

Landmark Education Trial Against State of New Mexico Ends

Families & School Districts Assert that Students’ Constitutional Rights are being Violated

SANTA FE, NM – Today marks the last day of testimony in an eight-week trial against the state of New Mexico, in a case that alleges the State has violated the constitutional rights of its public school students.

The consolidated lawsuit, which was filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) and MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund), claims that the State’s arbitrary and inadequate funding of public schools, and lack of necessary monitoring and oversight, deprives children—particularly low-income, Native American, and English language learner students—of a sufficient education, in violation of the New Mexico Constitution.

“It was very clear from the defense that the State is in denial about the educational crisis that New Mexico students face,” said Marisa Bono, MALDEF Southwest Regional Counsel. “We look forward to a ruling from the Court that will force the State to stop fiddling while Rome burns, and start providing equal educational opportunities to all students.”

Through the course of the trial, a number of respected national and state experts provided testimony about how New Mexico’s public school system is in crisis. They provided data about the State’s dismal education outcomes, most notably that three out of four students cannot read or write at grade level and two-thirds cannot do math at grade level, that graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation, and a majority of New Mexico graduates are not college and career ready.

“We heard from superintendents from across the state who testified that the lack of resources and quality programs available to schools is harming their students,” said Preston Sanchez, attorney at the Center. “They can’t afford the types of programs they know work, can’t purchase up to date materials and textbooks, can’t provide sufficient afterschool programs, teacher training and even buses.”

Educators and school leaders from across the State discussed the distinct needs of New Mexico’s large population of English language learners and the importance of expanded access to quality bilingual/multicultural education programs and properly trained teachers. PED’s own expert admitted that the State does not provide oversight or monitoring for thousands of English language learners in the State.

Witness testimony addressed the ways in which historical and current injustices have led to disparate outcomes for Native students and English language learner students. Expert witnesses reiterated the need for culturally and linguistically relevant programming as an evidence-based means to improve student performance.

Furthermore, testimony was offered about what steps should be taken to fundamentally improve academic outcomes and close the achievement gap. It was virtually undisputed that high quality preschool and extended learning opportunities like the K-3 Plus Program, which adds 25 more days to the school year for elementary school students, are necessary to ensure that that low income and ELL students start school ready, yet a majority of eligible children in the State do not have access to such programs. Others spoke to the importance of wraparound services in a high poverty state like New Mexico, such as access to social workers and counselors, tutors, and on campus healthcare services that are necessary to mitigate the impact of poverty on learning

Defense witnesses testified under cross examination that the state has made policy choices over the past decade that have benefited higher income New Mexicans and corporations and resulted in a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in state revenue every year. Defense experts also acknowledged that students who attend high-poverty schools have less access to effective teachers, but the State has failed to provide adequate resources to provide the mentoring and training that teachers need to improve, and the proper compensation for effective teacher recruitment and retention strategies.

The Center’s lawsuit, Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, was filed in March 2014 on behalf of a group of families and school districts including Gallup-McKinley, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Cuba, Moriarty/Edgewood, and Lake Arthur. The families represented have children who are English language learners (ELL), Native American or economically disadvantaged and have been negatively impacted by the lack of resources provided to New Mexico public schools. (Click here for information on the case and plaintiff profiles).

The Martinez lawsuit was brought on behalf of parents and public school children from Española, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Zuni, Magdalena, Las Cruces and Gadsden. It was filed in April 2014 by MALDEF following extensive discussions with community groups, local leaders, and parents in New Mexico concerning chronic achievement gaps on standardized tests and other systemic failures. State attorneys sought to dismiss the lawsuit, but the court denied the request and ruled for the first time in New Mexico’s history that education is a fundamental right. (Click here for a fact sheet on the case and a timeline of significant dates.)

The trial for the consolidated lawsuit began on June 12, 2017. It calls for the court to declare the current system of public education constitutionally insufficient, and order the state to provide the programming and resources necessary for all public school students to succeed, as well as ensure that funds are distributed equitably, including for economically disadvantaged and ELL students.

The Center’s legal counsel on the case include Gail Evans, Preston Sanchez, Lauren Winkler, and Christopher Sanchez of the Center along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Mark D. Fine. MALDEF’s lead counsel is Marisa Bono, Southwest regional counsel, and legal counsel include staff attorneys Ernest Herrera and Jack Salmon; E. Martin Estrada, Nick Sidney and Jessica Baril with Munger, Tolles & Olson; Alejandra Avila of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson, and David Garcia.

State District Court Judge Sarah Singleton has requested that parties submit post-trial briefing and is expected to make a ruling on the case this fall or winter.

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The mission of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is to advance economic and social justice through education, advocacy, and litigation. The Center works with low-income New Mexicans to improve living conditions, increase opportunities, and protect the rights of people living in poverty. Underlying its mission is a vision of New Mexico without poverty, where all peoples’ basic human rights are met. For more information on the Yazzie lawsuit, including plaintiff profiles, please visit: http://nmpovertylaw.org/our-work/education-2/. For media inquiries, please contact Maria Archuleta at (505) 255-2840 or MariaA@nmpovertylaw.org.

Founded in 1968, MALDEF is the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization. Often described as the “Latino Legal Voice for Civil Rights in America,” MALDEF promotes social change through advocacy, communications, community education and litigation in the areas of education, employment, immigrant rights and political access. For more information, on MALDEF, please visit: www.maldef.org. For media inquiries, please contact Tony Marcano at (213) 629-2512 ext. 128 or amarcano@maldef.org

Families and School Districts Ask Court to Find that State Failed Its Legal Obligation to School Age Children 

SANTA FE, NM—In a pre-trial hearing starting Monday, May 22, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (the Center) will ask the First Judicial District Court to find that the State has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide children the supports necessary to learn and succeed. The Center will also ask the Court to rule that the State’s system of education is unconstitutional as it applies to Native American students.

“Education is a right, not a privilege. It’s time for the State of New Mexico to step up and meet its constitutional responsibility to provide public schools the resources and programming they need to promote the success of all children,” said Edward Tabet-Cubero, Executive Director of the Center. “It is unacceptable that a vast majority of our children cannot read, write, or do math at grade level. The State is failing our kids.”

The Center’s Motions for Summary Judgement in the lawsuit, Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, are on behalf of a group of New Mexico families and school districts including Gallup, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Cuba, Moriarty/Edgewood, and Lake Arthur. The families represented have children who are English language learners (ELL), Native American or economically disadvantaged and have been negatively impacted by the lack of resources provided to New Mexico public schools.

Marsha Leno, one of the plaintiffs in the case, lives in McCartys in western New Mexico. Five of her six children are enrolled in Cibola-Grants County Schools (GCCS). Like many families in the district, Marsha and the children speak both Keres and English at home. Her children have struggled in English Language Arts and other courses that require writing. Unfortunately, the district lacks an adequate bilingual and English as a second language program for Native American students. The GCCS superintendent told Leno that the district lacks adequate funding to address these problems.

The Center’s lawsuit seeks for the Court to order and hold the State accountable to meet its legal responsibility to provide the programming and resources necessary for all public school students to succeed. The lawsuit also seeks to ensure that funds are distributed equitably, including for economically disadvantaged, Native American, and English language learner students.

“The State of New Mexico has been starving its public schools for years and legislation continues to fail,” said Lauren Winkler, one of the Center’s attorneys working on the case. “Our kids are just as smart and motivated as other children across the country. We have loving families, committed teachers, and communities dedicated to their children’s education. But our schools have tried to do more with less, and it’s our children who are suffering from the State’s failure.”

Yazzie v. State of New Mexico was originally filed in March 2014 and consolidated with a similar case, Martinez v State of New Mexico. The Martinez parents and children hail from Española, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Zuni, Magdalena, Las Cruces, and Gadsden.

The consolidated lawsuit goes to trial on June 12, 2017.

Legal counsel on the Yazzie lawsuit include Gail Evans, Preston Sanchez, Christopher Sanchez, and Lauren Winkler of the Center along with co-counsel Daniel Yohalem and Mark D. Fine.

Legal documents in the case can be found here.