In 2014 the landmark case of “Yazzie-Martinez” was filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The lawsuit alleged that the state of New Mexico and the previous Republican Governor Administration violated the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education in reading, writing and math.
On July 20, 2018, after a two-week trial and days of expert testimony, a Santa Fe District Court found that the constitutional rights of at-risk students were indeed violated and ordered the state to properly fund the Public Education Department and implement new policies. Soon after assuming office on January 1, 2019, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that her Administration would not appeal the District Court ruling setting the stage for public education reform and funding for the 2019 New Mexico legislative session.
After almost a full year after the court ruling and close to 4 months after the 2019 legislative session, the Plaintiff’s filed a status report on the State’s Public Education Department’s (PED) compliance with the Court’s ruling. Further, the PED announced a significant shortfall in fund programs for state prekindergarten classes in the coming school year.
This article is intended to give an overview of the court ruling, legislative funding, the court filed status report, and the reported shortfall in funding for pre-kindergarten programs.
DETAILS OF DISTRICT COURT RULING
The landmark lawsuit filed against the state and the Public Education Department alleged a severe lack of state funding, resources and services to help students, particularly children from low-income families, students of color, including Native Americans, English-language learners and students with disabilities. The court ruling confirmed what went on for 8 years with the state’s at-risk children under the former Republican Governor “She Who Must Not Be Named”. The Judge found that it was clear that many New Mexico students are not receiving the basic education in reading, writing and math they should be receiving in our public-school system. According to the court ruling, during the 8 years of the former Republican Governor Administration at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career.
In the blistering written opinion, the Judge wrote:
“[The evidence presented at trial] proves that the vast majority of New Mexico’s at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career. … Indeed, overall New Mexico children rank at the very bottom in the country for educational achievement. … The at-risk students are still not attaining proficiency at the rate of non-at-risk students … and the programs being lauded by [the Public Education Department] are not changing this picture.”
In New Mexico, 71.6% of the state’s public-school students come from low-income families, and 14.4% are English-language learners. Further, 14.8 percent of students have disabilities, and 10.6 percent are Native American. Judge Singleton addressing proficiency rates for Native American students said that in the past 3 years, those students’ reading proficiency was at 17.6% and their math proficiency was at 10.4%.
The Court found that New Mexico does not have enough teachers and that New Mexico teachers are among the lowest paid in the country and stated:
“The evidence shows that school districts do not have the funds to pay for all the teachers they need. … [An example is] Gadsden, one of the better performing school districts in the state, has had to eliminate over 53 classroom positions and 15 essential teachers since 2008.”
The Court also faulted the former Republican Governor’s Administration’s failure to provide access to technology in rural districts.
The Judge addressed the state teacher evaluation system implemented by the previous Republican Governor Administration by saying:
“[The teacher evaluation system] may be contributing to the lower quality of teachers in high-need schools. … In general, punitive teacher evaluation systems that penalize teachers for working in high-need schools contribute to problems in this category of schools.”
The Court rejected the former Republican Governor Administration’s arguments that no new funding is needed because at-risk student performances are improving.
In the original court ruling filed on July 20, 2018, the State was given until April 15, 2019 to present plans to come into compliance.
NEW MEXICO LEGISLATURE PED FUNDING
The 2019 New Mexico Legislature that ended March 15, 2019 approved a $7 Billion State Budget. The $7 Billion State budget includes a $3.2 Billion Public Education Department (PED) budget. The PED approved budget represents a 16% increase over last year’s budget. Included in the budget is $500 million in additional funding for K-12 education and increases in teacher pay. The massive infusion of funding to public education is the result of the District Court ruling that ruled the state of New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education.
Early childhood programs were also given a major increase in funding by the 2019 New Mexico legislature. Under the enacted 2019-2020 budget, every public-school district will be allocated significantly more funding. Teachers and school administrators were also given a 6% pay raises with more money to hire teachers.
A new “Early Childhood Department” was created starting in January 2020. This was a major priority of Governor Lujan Grisham. The new department will focus state resources on children from birth to 5 years of age. A major goal of the new department, coupled with other investments, is more New Mexico children growing up to secure gainful employment as adults who don’t require government services.
On Friday, June 21 2019, the Plaintiff’s who prevailed in the landmark public education case against the state filed a pleading giving their update to the district court on the status of the case. According to the update pleading filed, the state and lawmakers still have not done enough to ensure all students have access to an adequate education.
According to the Plaintiff’s status report:
“The court was quite clear about what needed to be done. But instead of doing these things, the legislature again simply followed its old mode of operation: it took last year’s budget, made some adjustments, with some steps forward and some steps backwards, and, in the end, left us with a patchwork system of education and inadequate funding that continues to fail our students … The legislature failed to sufficiently fund the education budget to ensure schools had sufficient resources for their at-risk students. … [the] plaintiffs have determined from [their research] that the outcome of the 2019 Legislative Session was anything but the ‘moonshot’ as claimed by legislative leadership. … Instead, after making required raises, districts are left with little or no money to implement additional programming, supports and services for at-risk students.”
The Plaintiff’s report to the district court alleges that notwithstanding the 16% increase and the $447 million spending infusion for public schools, the state and lawmakers still have not done enough to ensure all students have access to an adequate education. The plaintiffs argue the boosts in education funding primarily went to pay for mandated educator salary increases. The Legislature authorized pay raises of at least 6% for teachers and other school staff for the coming school year and set starting teacher pay at a minimum of $41,000 per year.
The update court filing takes notice of the uptick in an at-risk factor within the state’s school funding formula and highlights monies set aside for extended learning programs. However, the pleading says more needs to be done to make sure kids have the needed teachers, programs and services. The plaintiffs did not ask the judge to intervene and are working with the PED on an implementation plan to remedy and comply with the judge’s orders.
$7.3 MILLION MORE NEEDED FOR PRE KINDERGARTEN PROGRAMS
On June 20, 2019, officials with the Public Education Department (PED) reported that an additional $7.3 million is needed to fund programs for state prekindergarten classes in the coming school year. The additional funding is due to a significant increase in demand of the students who have applied for the 2019-2020 school year.
Last year, approximately 6,700 kids attended full- and half-day programs. According to PED officials, 7,767 applications have been submitted for the coming school year. Among the 7,767 applicants a much larger interest is shown in full-day programs. Full day programs are more expensive than half-day programs.
Last year, 3,554 kids were enrolled in half-day pre-kindergarten programs and 3,220 enrolled in full-day programs. According to PED officials, more than 5,000 students are applying to get into 2019-2020 full-day programs. Just 2,671 student applications have been submitted for half-day.
In 2018-2019, PED was allocated a total budget of $36.7 million for pre kindergarten programs. For the 2019-2020 school year, PED’s total pre-kindergarten budget is $42.5 million. According to the Legislative Finance Committee (LFC), the amount has gone up significantly over a decade, increasing by at least $9 million.
The Public Education Department is scrambling to determine where the needed $7 million could come from, including seeking money from New Mexico lawmakers or shifting around internal funds. PED can ask for more money in the form of supplemental appropriations from the Legislature, those appropriations can be authorized only when the full Legislature is in session, which is not scheduled to happen until January.
COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS
The 2019-2020 approved budget enacted by the New Mexico legislature became effective July 1, 2019, meaning absolutely not a single cent of the $7 Billion Dollar budget could have been spent by any government agency until then. The $7 Billion State budget includes a $3.2 Billion Public Education Department (PED) budget with a massive 16% infusion of additional funding. It is for this reason it is very hard to determine how much credibility should be given to the June 21, 2019 Plaintiff’s status report when it reports:
“The legislature failed to sufficiently fund the education budget to ensure schools had sufficient resources for their at-risk students. … [the] plaintiffs have determined from [their research] that after making required raises, districts are left with little or no money to implement additional programming, supports and services for at-risk students.”
It is likely the State will be submitting it’s own status report in response to the June 21, 2019 Plaintiff’s status report and give it own version of what has happened in carrying out the Court’s order.
It is very hard to determine how much credibility should be given to the June 20, 2019 Public Education Department claim that an additional $7.3 million is needed to fund programs for state prekindergarten classes in the coming school year. The statistics offered by PED to explain the shortfall are that approximately 6,700 kids attended full-day and half-day programs last year and that 7,767 applications have been submitted for the coming school year. Among the 7,767 applicants, a much larger interest is shown in full-day programs but PED offers no details. In other words, PED is claiming it needs $7.3 Million more for 167 more students without giving a breakdown of the number of full-day applicants in the 7,767-applicant pool.
The Appropriation Committees and Education Committees of both the New Mexico House and Senate need to convene interim committee hearing and start asking some hard questions as to how the PED $3.2 Billion Budget is actually being spent.
It is going to take far more than one legislative session to repair the damage done during the last 8 years to the State’s education system. It will take years of sustained effort before New Mexico’s public education system will get better. It will take a real commitment by the New Mexico Legislature to realize that New Mexico has an education crisis and now is the time to act. For these reasons, the debate over using a small portion of the state’s $17 billion Land Grant Permanent fund for early childhood education, care and intervention needs to continue. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham should continue her efforts to give major attention to use of the State’s Land Grant and Permanent Fund to finally solve many of our early childhood education, care and intervention problems.
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