Yazzie/Martinez education lawsuit moves forward!

SANTA FE—First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson denied the State of New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the landmark Yazzie/Martinez ruling today, which found that the state was violating the public school students’ right to a sufficient education. The judge noted that the state, by its own admission, is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to provide a sufficient education to all students.

The judge stated, “The state cannot be deemed to have complied with this court’s order until it shows that the necessary programs and reforms are being provided to all at risk students to ensure that they have the opportunity to be college and career ready. There is a lack of evidence in this case that the defendants have substantially satisfied this court’s express orders regarding all at risk students. The court’s injunction requires comprehensive educational reform that demonstrates substantial improvement of student outcomes so that students are actually college and career ready.”

The judge continued, “The court agrees with the plaintiffs’ counsel that to dismiss this action now while implementation and compliance are merely in their initial stages would undermine the years of work by this court and the parties and leave the children of New Mexico in an educational system that may be below constitutional standards.”

The judge also stated that “the court will maintain jurisdiction in this case until defendants have actually overhauled the system and complied with the constitutional requirements.” 

In reaction to the decision today, Wilhelmina Yazzie, a plaintiff in the Yazzie lawsuit said “In our culture, children are sacred, and I’m overjoyed that the fight for their education will go on. Even before the pandemic, our schools were not getting what they needed. There weren’t enough books to go around then and now it’s even worse. Our teachers are doing all they can, but they can’t even reach all their students because so many families, especially those that live in rural areas, don’t have internet access. Unfortunately, we just can’t trust the state to do the right thing without the court intervening.” 

Yazzie continued, “It’s time for our leaders to be courageous and make real changes for our kids. All across the country, people are standing up against the inequities caused by hundreds of years of systemic racism. It’s time for our state to stop fighting the lawsuit and instead address the inequities in our schools.”

Judge Wilson approved a motion from the Martinez plaintiffs that allows time for discovery of evidence to investigate the state’s compliance with the court ruling.

Yazzie plaintiffs also asked the court at the hearing to order the state to develop a comprehensive plan to overhaul the public education system. The judge decided not to order a plan now and will wait to entertain the motion until after discovery is completed and more information is available. 

In 2018, the court ordered the state to provide educational programs, services, and funding to schools to prepare students so they are college and career ready. In October 2019, the Yazzie Plaintiffs filed a motion asking the court to order the state to develop a plan to come into compliance with the court’s ruling. In March 2020, the state filed a motion asking the court to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit. The Yazzie case was brought on behalf of families and six school districts. 

Almost two years have passed since the landmark court ruling but very little has changed for students and families at the heart of the case – low-income families, students with disabilities, English language learners, and Native American students, who collectively make up roughly 80% of the New Mexico student population.

In their motion for a compliance plan the Yazzie plaintiffs provided the court evidence that almost two years after the court’s ruling students still lack access to technology and culturally relevant materials; thousands of English language learners lack certified teachers; extended learning and summer school still is not available for all students who need these programs; more than 25,000 three- and four-year-olds still don’t have access to quality Pre-K; and the state still fails to fund or implement the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act (1973), the Indian Education Act (2003), or the Hispanic Education Act (2010).

“We are relieved that the case will continue. Education costs a lot more during a health crisis. We didn’t have the support we needed before COVID-19, but now we really are in crisis,” said Mike Hyatt, Superintendent of Gallup McKinley County Schools. “Without question, student learning in our district, which is predominantly Native American, and across New Mexico will suffer this coming year because the state is not funding school districts based on our needs.”

The state’s motion to dismiss the case argued that the court should trust the state government, legislators, and the governor to fix the school system. Yazzie plaintiffs argued that politics have failed our children for many years and the state continues to violate the law even after three legislative sessions since the landmark court ruling. 

At the recent special session, the legislature passed a budget that underfunds education overall and will force schools to choose between spending on necessary changes to keep kids safe and able to continue learning during the COVID-19 pandemic or basic things like instructional materials and adequate salaries for educators. The federal CARES Act money will not cover all the COVID-related costs such as protective equipment for staff and students, reconfiguring bathrooms, ensuring more teaching staff in school, and online instruction, yet the legislature wants it to also be used for basic education programs.

“The pandemic is compounding deep and ongoing educational inequities that are a direct result of decades of complacency by the state that continued even after the court ruling,” said Preston Sanchez, an attorney with ACLU-NM working in cooperation with New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty that represents the Yazzie plaintiffs. (Sanchez was formerly staff with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty when the litigation began). “Now more than ever, it’s important that the court continues to ensure the state is accountable to New Mexico’s students and families.”

A few days ago, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, released its annual report on child well being: New Mexico again ranks last.  

The Yazzie plaintiffs’ response brief with exhibits—including declarations in opposition to State of New Mexico’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Navajo Nation’s Department of Dine Education, and Jicarilla Apache Nation (Exhibits A-D, pages 48-55)—can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/yazzie-plaintiffs-response-states-mtd-with-exhibits-a-j-2020-05-01/

The February 2019 final judgment and order in the lawsuit can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/D-101-CV-2014-00793-Final-Judgment-and-Order-NCJ-1.pdf