After Over 3 Years, Court Mandated Education Program Funding Advances In 2022 NM Legislative Session; Yazzie v. Martinez Court Ruling Revisited

On February 1, 2022 New Mexico Political Reports published the following article entitled “Bills to address Yazzie/Martinez court ruling advance” written by reporter Robert Nott with the Santa Fe New Mexican:

“The House Education Committee approved a trio of bills to fund programs to help Native American students succeed in school.

The three bills, sponsored by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, are in response to the historic 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling that said New Mexico has denied several groups of students, including Native Americans, their constitutional right to an education.

House bills 87, 88 and 90 would provide more than $70 million to tribal entities to help offer culturally relevant lesson plans and access to virtual and after-school programs for those students.

“This is not about throwing money at a problem in hopes that it goes away,” Lente told committee members. “That’s a practice we’ve engaged in for decades and we’ve seen the results.

“Where we’re trying to get to is shift the priorities … to make sure Native American students are educated within their communities … and have the capacity to access equitable learning programs,” he added.

House Bill 87 would appropriate $20 million from the state’s general fund to the Indian Education Act to provide educational funding for tribes starting July 1, 2024. That money would be used to create culturally relevant learning programs, including Native language programs, for students in the K-12 system.

A Legislative Education Study Committee report says if the bill becomes law, each of the state’s 23 tribal entities would receive $547,826 per year.

House Bill 88 would appropriate $21.5 million to help tribal education departments develop learning plans and programs for students, extend learning opportunities and support tribal school libraries. That bill also would take effect July 1, 2024.

Each tribe and pueblo would get $250,000 a year, with the exception of the Navajo Nation, which would get $500,000, according to the bill’s fiscal report.

Both bills dole out money based on student populations in tribal communities, Lente said.

House Bill 90 is aimed at higher education. It appropriates $29.6 million to four state colleges and three tribal colleges for 53 initiatives, such as building a Native American teacher pipeline and expanding high school-to-college programs to encourage those students to attend college. The bill’s fiscal impact report says it is assumed the bill would go into effect 90 days after the last day of the Legislature, assuming Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it into law.

Some lawmakers and members of the public who spoke in support of the bills said they want a provision requiring tribal entities to report on the outcomes of any programs they fund with the money. Lente agreed, noting those requirements will be included in the intergovernmental agreements tribal entities are required to create with the state to administer the funding.

“It would be unconscionable to just give money away and expect something done and you don’t know what the results will be,” Lente said.

Even lawmakers in favor of the initiatives questioned whether the state is doing enough to meet the needs of that court ruling.

Assessing what she called “generations of inequity,” Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said previous attempts to bring funding formulas “up to what we believe are equitable distributions still doesn’t get us up to the point of full equity.”

Lente unsuccessfully tried to move similar legislation through last year’s regular 60-day session.

After Monday’s committee vote, Lente said he didn’t do “enough legwork” in building support for those bills ahead of last year’s session. He said this year both the Legislative Finance Committee and the Governor’s Office have included room in their respective budgets to create “effective” responses to that lawsuit, which he sees as a sign of support.

But he also noted the 30-day session is nearly halfway done.

“I’m talking confidently, but I can only move as fast as others allow me to move,” he said.

The Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, brought on by a coalition of parents, students, lawmakers and others in 2014, charged New Mexico had not done enough to address the needs of Native Americans, English-language learners, disabled and low-income students.

All those student groups typically lag behind Anglo students when it comes to math and reading proficiency. While the court ruling did not apply a price tag to its mandate, it said New Mexico has to begin providing remedies for that problem.

As of Monday, there were no other legislative bills filed in the House of Representatives regarding the Yazzie/Martinez case. Lente said he thinks the push to address the court ruling has been led by Native Americans because “if we don’t do this, nobody is going to make it a priority.”

In the Senate, three Democrats have filed Senate Memorial 12, which asks the state Public Education Department to develop a “comprehensive plan” to address the needs of the student groups tied to the Yazzie/Martinez case and then annually report to the Legislature about the plan.”

The link to the New Mexico Political Reports article is here:


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.”


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 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 was required 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.


After well over three and half years since the July 20, 2018 landmark ruling of Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Governor Suzanna Martinez, it is long overdue that funding is now being provided in bills to fund programs to help Native American students succeed in school. The blunt truth is it will take years for the state to get on track, perhaps a decade or more to implement 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. Three and half years since the July 20, 2018 landmark is still 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.

The passage House bills 87, 88 and 90 providing more than $70 million to tribal entities to help offer culturally relevant lesson plans and access to virtual and after-school programs for those students will no doubt be a major step in bringing the state into compliance with the Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, Martinez landmark ruling.

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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.