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

The Case for Education Equity in New Mexico

Education is fundamental to our future, but our students don’t have equal opportunities in our school system—a reality aggravated by the COVID-19 crisis. Now more ever, we need to fight for the public schools New Mexico’s students need and deserve. 

A new video on the landmark Yazzie lawsuit makes it clear why we must transform our education system now.

The Case for Education Equity in New Mexico follows the personal story of parent turned education advocate Wilhelmina Yazzie. Her story is one of love and perseverance, culture and language, and the reality of how opportunity gaps harm New Mexico and its children. 

Every child deserves to graduate ready for college and career and to pursue their dreams. This was the reason Wilhelmina, along with other families and school districts across New Mexico, brought the lawsuit against the state for violating students’ constitutional right to a sufficient education.

The video is especially timely now. Last week, on behalf of the Yazzie plaintiffs, our legal team responded to the state’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The legal brief argued that court oversight is essential to protecting students’ constitutional right to an equitable education and that the state should be required to develop a comprehensive plan to overhaul the public education system as soon as possible.

There will be a hearing June 29 on the Yazzie plaintiffs’ and state’s motions.

Watch the video and share it with your networks and on social media these next few days and through the date of the hearing.

New Mexico has a long way to go to improve education system, charge Yazzie plaintiffs 

SANTA FE—Students still lack the basics that are necessary for a constitutionally sufficient education, charged the Yazzie plaintiffs of the landmark education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico in a legal notice of case status filed with the First Judicial District Court today. 

“We know that the Public Education Department and the governor want New Mexico’s diverse student population to have the educational opportunities they need to succeed,” said Lauren Winkler, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “Unfortunately, our legislature did not do nearly enough for our students this session. As a result, school districts have been unable to provide additional programming and supports for at-risk students like bilingual education and social services. In fact, many districts have been forced to cut basic programs like reading intervention and drop-out/truancy prevention, and they cannot meet the demand for pre-K programs.” 

Plaintiffs in the case are working with the governor and the PED on a plan to bring the state into compliance with the First Judicial District Court’s most recent February 2019 court order, which found that the state violated students’ constitutional rights to a sufficient education and ordered the state to provide educational programs, services, and funding to schools to prepare students so they are college and career ready.

The court ordered the state to take immediate action for at-risk students that face the deepest inequities and barriers to education, including low-income students, Native American and Latino students, English language learners, and students with disabilities. Judge Sarah Singleton’s initial ruling was in July 2018.

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 orders. Most of the programs and funding in the platform, supported by plaintiffs, were blocked by legislative leaders and died in committees.

The New Mexico State Legislature increased education funding this past session, 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.

“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 children 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 another year. Our children are the future of New Mexico, and they are sacred.” 

The notice of case status states that the Legislature’s increased funding is not sufficient 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;
  • Adequately expand access to pre-K, summer school, after school programs, reading specialists, and smaller class sizes;
  • 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;
  • Adequately increase the transportation budget to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate in after-school and summer programs.

“Raises for teachers and support personnel were essential to recruiting and retaining employees. Rio Rancho is still seeing its teachers exit the profession and leave for better salaries. The most important support we provide students is a highly qualified teacher, but we struggle to find staff in every field. New Mexico must offer salaries that are competitive with neighboring states,” said Sue Cleveland, superintendent of the Rio Rancho Public School District. “But after satisfying the salary mandate, insufficient funds remained for programs such as pre-K and for addressing the needs for social workers, dual-language programs, and literacy specialists. We continue to run a deficit of $800,000 for transportation, diverting funds away from the classroom. Positive gains have been made, but there is still work to be done.”

While the Legislature significantly increased funding for extended learning through the K-5 Plus and the Extended Learning programs, the vast majority of at-risk students do not have access to these programs.

By the time the laws were passed, districts had little time to consult with teachers and parents to determine whether the districts could apply for the programs. 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.

The Legislature also increased funding for pre-K for four-year-olds, but thousands of families who applied for the program still do not have access.

The Yazzie plaintiff’s Notice to the Court of Case Status in Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico can be found here: http://nmpovertylaw.org/notice-yazziemartinez-v-nm-yazzie-plaintiffs-2019-06-28/

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

I dream of a moonshot for education, too

By Wilhelmina Yazzie, lead plaintiff in the Yazzie/Martinez v. New Mexico lawsuit.
(This op-ed appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican)

When it comes to providing a quality education for every child in New Mexico, the stakes are too high for the “wait and see” approach the Santa Fe New Mexican takes in its recent editorial (“Educators must take the lead in reforms,” Our View, March 24).

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said she wants a “moonshot for education.” As the lead plaintiff in the Yazzie/Martinez v. state of New Mexico lawsuit, I, too, dream of a moonshot for my children and for all of New Mexico’s children. I am of the Diné (Navajo) tribe and we view our children as “sacred.” They are the heart of our existence, and it is our responsibility to prepare them for iiná, what we call “life” in my language.

Our state constitution mandates that the state of New Mexico is responsible for providing a sufficient education for all students. The state has not followed through on its obligation, and in her court ruling on our lawsuit, Judge Sarah Singleton agreed.

The Legislature had a chance this session to change course, but it did not go nearly far enough. The funding increases for public education passed in this legislative session only serve to backfill budgets and do not even return basic school programming to 2008 levels. They will not adequately cover the critical programs needed to improve outcomes for all students — especially for our Native American children, our Latino/Hispanic children, our English language learners, our low-income children and our children with special needs.

My children’s schools do not have enough textbooks. Our teachers do not have basic classroom supplies. When it comes to testing, my children do not score at grade level, despite getting good grades and being on honor roll. My children do not receive enough academic support and resources to get them ready for these tests, and they have to pass these tests to graduate. Our schools have limited after-school programs and tutoring.

Our schools also lack one of the most important teachings for our youth — cultural and language education. It is imperative that we bring culturally relevant programs and resources into our schools, especially at a time like this. Our children are yearning for their identity and values, and others are searching for acceptance.

Being culturally connected to our language and culture help us find purpose and guidance; it gives us confidence and motivation to excel in all that we do. It also teaches our children our way of life and the meaning of our existence, gives us pride in who we are and where we come from. It also teaches non-Native children and educators our history and with that knowledge brings respect for one another and creates hózhó (peace) between all people that we interact with. That is the path to balance and harmony.

I am asking our state and our lawmakers to address all these issues; to act upon the court’s ruling and honor the constitutional rights of our students. We need pre-K for every student. We need more multilingual teachers, and they deserve better pay. All classrooms should have access to textbooks, technology and other basic resources. Our children should be our first priority. They are the next generation, and all I want is for my children, your children, our children to receive the quality education that they deserve.

To transform our public education system, it will take the dedication and cooperation of every member of our community— from tribal leaders to educators and experts to parents. We need everyone at the table if we are to succeed at what is most important to us: helping our children realize their dreams.