Judge Declines To Dismiss Landmark Education Case; Sweeping Changes To Improve New Mexico’s Public Education Will Take Years And Millions State May Not Have

On June 29, 2020 Santa Fe 1st Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson denied the State of New Mexico’s “Motion to Dismiss” the public education case of Yazzie v. State of New Mexico. The case is the landmark public education case decided on July 20, 2018 by the late Santa Fe District Court Judge Sarah Singleton with Judge Wilson taking the case over.

Judge Singleton ruled that the state of New Mexico was violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. Singleton found that New Mexico was failing to give at risk students, who make up about 80% of the state’s student population, a sufficient public education that prepared them for the workforce or for college.

The case was decided towards the end of the prior Republican Administration with Democrat Governor Lujan Grisham deciding not to appeal the case at the time. Lujan Grisham said that her administration would “litigate aggressively” in an attempt to avoid ongoing court oversight of New Mexico’s public schools. After almost two years, the Motion to Dismiss was filed.

The state’s attorney Taylor Rahn argued that the Public Education Department has met the court’s expectation to make substantial changes by an initial deadline. Rhan argued that the State increased public education funding to the extent that it makes up 46% of the state budget. State Attorney Rahn noted the legislature has increased at-risk funds substantially, teacher recruitment has been improved and major educational evaluation systems, such as teacher evaluations, have been improved. Rhan argued:

“The point of the injunction was to be a catalyst for change and that change has occurred. Continuing to exercise oversight for traditional executive and legislative functions is not required, because we got the message”.

Plaintiff’s Attorney Ernest Herrera, counsel for the Martinez plaintiffs, argued:

“Any of the state’s supposed fixes are really just promises to act. … Continuing jurisdiction of this court is necessary to ensure implementation. … This is about changing the system and not just about how much money is going into it.”

Judge Wilson agreed that the state’s Public Education Department has made significant progress since the 2018 ruling but said the court has yet to see long-term education reforms by the state. Judge Wilson ultimately agreed with the Plaintiffs contention that the state’s changes have not been enough. In deciding to deny the Motion to Dismiss, Judge Wilson ruled:

“The court agrees with the plaintiff’s 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”.

Judge Wilson also ruled that the plaintiffs’ counsel can investigate whether the state is complying with the judgment. Judge Wilson also denied a Plaintiff’s motion to require a detailed plan on implementation of changes to the state’s education system.

After the court’s denial to dismiss the case, Governor Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the governor would work to continue improving New Mexico schools and further said:

“Just as she was prior to today’s ruling, the governor remains committed to a comprehensive restructuring and reform of New Mexico’s public education system that continues to address the systemic shortfalls outlined by the original lawsuit,”

As a result of the court’s denial of the motion, the state’s Public Education Department will have to comply with an examination into what it is doing to ensure an adequate education for low-income families, students with disabilities, English-language learners and Native American students.

Plaintiff Wilhelmina Yazzie released a written statement that the state can’t be trusted to keep making changes without the court’s intervention and said:

“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.”

New Mexico State Representative Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said the result of Judge Wilson’s ruling is that New Mexico students, including Native Americans, were the real winners of the judge’s decision. Lente stated he has already been in contact with top-ranking lawmakers about considering possible changes to the state’s public education system during the 2021 legislative session and said:

“We recognize that we have a true opportunity now … to prove to our state and our children that we hold them in high regard and that their education isn’t just lip service”.



On Friday, July 20, 2018, Santa Fe District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in the case of Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Governor Suzanna Martinez that the state of New Mexico was violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. The District Court ruling came after a two-month trial that concluded in August, 2017. Nearly 80 witnesses testified during the bench trial.

The consolidated lawsuit was filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. The Plaintiffs argued that the New Mexico public schools are inadequately funded.

In a 75-page decision, the court rejected arguments by Governor Susana Martinez’s administration that the education system is improving and for that reason it does not need more funding. The Court found that the New Mexico Public Education Department (PED) did not do the best it could with the funding it has given by the legislature to the education system.

The Court ruling centered on the guaranteed right under the New Mexico Constitution to a sufficient education for all children. The lawsuit 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.


State District Judge Sarah Singleton pulled no punches with her decision.

The Judge found that it was clear that many New Mexico students were not receiving the basic education in reading, writing and math they should be receiving in our public-school system. As a matter of law, Judge Singleton wrote the “lack of funds is not a defense to providing constitutional rights.”

In her blistering written opinion, Judge Singleton 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.”

According to the judge’s ruling, in New Mexico, at the time, 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 previous 3 years, those students’ reading proficiency was at 17.6% and their math proficiency was at 10.4%.


Judge Singleton faulted the lack of access to technology in rural districts. The Court also 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.”

Judge Singleton ruling addressed the state teacher evaluation system implemented by the Martinez 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 wrote that she was not persuaded by the Martinez Administration’s arguments that no new funding is needed because at-risk student performances are improving.

A spokeswoman for the state Public Education Department at the time announced that the State decided to appeal the ruling. However, soon after assuming office on January 1, 2018, Governor Lujan Grisham decided the state would not appeal the case, work to increase funding for public education and changes to the system but committed to an aggressive defense of the case to achieve a dismissal.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, provided the following statement after the court ruling:

“For too long, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez and her administration have abandoned their responsibility to kids and public schools. This ruling confirms what parents and educators know—that New Mexico children are deprived of the essential resources, including qualified teachers and support staff, they need. This deprivation is especially severe for those at risk and in need of additional supports—English language learners, Native American students and those in poverty. The ruling also calls out the governor’s obsession with testing over teaching.”

“In New Mexico, it would take $228 million to get public school funding to what it was before the Great Recession, and average teacher pay in the state is nearly 10 percent lower than what it was in 2009. We call on the state to use this ruling as a long-overdue opportunity to overhaul its broken school funding system to ensure all New Mexico children are afforded the public education they deserve and are entitled to. Voters will be going to the polls in November to elect leaders committed to investing in public education.”




During the 2019 Legislative session, Governor Lujan Grisham made good on her commitment to improve New Mexico’s public education system. The 2019 legislature enacted dramatic increases in public education funding, creation of the Early Childhood Department (CYFD), mandates to Children, Youth and Families and Public Education departments, not to mention raises for educators and increasing CYFD social workers by 125 were clearly the biggest accomplishments of the 2019 Legislative session.

The total approved education budget was a whopping $3.2 Billion, 16% over the previous year’s budget, out of the total budget of $7 Billion. Included in the budget is a $500 million in additional funding for K-12 education and increases in teacher pay. Early childhood programs were given a major increase in funding. Under the enacted 2019-2020 budget, every public-school district was allocated significantly more funding. Teachers did not have any raises to speak of for 8 years. Teachers and school administrators were given 6% pay raises with more money to hire teachers.

The new “Early Childhood Department” was a major priority of the Governor Lujan Grisham it was funded and began full operation in June, 2020.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.



The New Mexico legislature adjourned their 30-day session after approval of a $7.6 billion spending plan. The enacted budget increased spending by 7.6% over current levels. The new budget included $17 million for the new college scholarship program sought by Lujan Grisham. The $17 million is much less than the Governor had initially requested. The goal was to provide need-based tuition aid for full-time students who already qualify for a separate assistance.

An Early Childhood Trust Fund of $320 million was approved that supporters hope will put $30 million annually toward the cause but there is no guarantee. The fund plan is flawed and modest and anything but “transformational” as supporters argued, but it was a welcome turn.



On June 22, the 4-day New Mexico special legislative session ended. The session was called to deal with the state’s deficit and to adjust the state budget amid historical deficits the result of the COVID-19 pandemic business closures and the collapse in oil revenues.

The New Mexico legislature enacted a budget solvency plan that would keep state spending roughly flat over the next year while drawing down reserves, tapping into federal funds and engaging in other financial maneuvers. The enacted budget was $7 billion for fiscal year 2020-2021 which begins on July 1. In February, lawmakers approved the largest budget in New Mexico’s history, at $7.6 billion, but only weeks later an oil price war and the COVID-19 pandemic put that plan in peril.

The revised fiscal year 2021 budget reduces spending by more than $600 million, bringing the budget to $7 billion. That’s a greater reduction than the around $450 million cut Lujan Grisham had advocated for. The revised budget reduces spending by 4 percent for most state agencies. It also includes $165 million in funding to help local governments that have their own coronavirus-related fiscal problems, with $15 million of that sum earmarked for McKinley, Cibola and San Juan counties.

The plan keeps intact most of the funding designated for the state’s new trust fund for early childhood education, reducing that amount from $320 million to $300 million. Sen. John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned the state’s finances are not likely to bounce back quickly from the double punch caused by the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices telling . Smith told his fellow legislators:

“It’s certainly not the perfect response, but it darn well may be the only response we can give right now. … New Mexico, we are not alright. … This looks like it’s going to be a prolonged downturn.”



The June 20 ruling denying the State’s “Motion to Dismiss” the landmark public education case of Yazzie v. State of New Mexico is a disappointment to the Lujan Grisham Administration, but the decision really came as no surprise. The original July 20, 2018 ruling was that the state of New Mexico is violating the constitutional rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a sufficient education. The Judge found that it was clear that New Mexico students were not receiving the basic education in reading, writing and math they should had been receiving in our public-school system. It will take years for the state to get on track, perhaps a decade or more to make all the changes mandated. The original court opinion was a confirmation of what went on for the full 8 years of the prior Republican Administration. A year and half since the original ruling is simply not enough time to turn things around and pull the education car out of the ditch and make the necessary repairs.

The biggest accomplishments of the 2019 Legislative session were the dramatic increases in public education funding, creation of the Early Childhood Department (CYFD), the mandates to Children, Youth and Families and Public Education departments, not to mention raises for educators and increasing CYFD social workers by 125 were clearly the biggest accomplishments of the 2019 Legislative session.

Much of the millions in education funding remain in place, but the question is for how long. As Senator John Arthur Smith, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, warned the state’s finances are not likely to bounce back quickly from the double punch caused by the coronavirus pandemic and plummeting oil prices. It likely as each year passes, budget cuts will be made in the state education budget and the State will slide back to the same level of funding or even less than what was appropriated under the prior Republican Administration.

The link to a related blog article is here:

Chapter Two: Point-Counter- Point With The Albuquerque Journal On Public Education Funding And The Public School Grading System

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Pete Dinelli was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is of Italian and Hispanic descent. He is a 1970 graduate of Del Norte High School, a 1974 graduate of Eastern New Mexico University with a Bachelor's Degree in Business Administration and a 1977 graduate of St. Mary's School of Law, San Antonio, Texas. Pete has a 40 year history of community involvement and service as an elected and appointed official and as a practicing attorney in Albuquerque. Pete and his wife Betty Case Dinelli have been married since 1984 and they have two adult sons, Mark, who is an attorney and George, who is an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT). Pete has been a licensed New Mexico attorney since 1978. Pete has over 27 years of municipal and state government service. Pete’s service to Albuquerque has been extensive. He has been an elected Albuquerque City Councilor, serving as Vice President. He has served as a Worker’s Compensation Judge with Statewide jurisdiction. Pete has been a prosecutor for 15 years and has served as a Bernalillo County Chief Deputy District Attorney, as an Assistant Attorney General and Assistant District Attorney and as a Deputy City Attorney. For eight years, Pete was employed with the City of Albuquerque both as a Deputy City Attorney and Chief Public Safety Officer overseeing the city departments of police, fire, 911 emergency call center and the emergency operations center. While with the City of Albuquerque Legal Department, Pete served as Director of the Safe City Strike Force and Interim Director of the 911 Emergency Operations Center. Pete’s community involvement includes being a past President of the Albuquerque Kiwanis Club, past President of the Our Lady of Fatima School Board, and Board of Directors of the Albuquerque Museum Foundation.