New Mexico's infused its public education system with a lot of money. But whether court-mandated reforms have started to take effect is still to be determined. (Getty Images)
It takes time to reform a failed system.
That’s the message state lawmakers got from education leaders providing updates on the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit that mandates reform in public schools across New Mexico.
It’s been four years since Judge Sarah Singleton ruled the state has failed to provide adequate education to students who are English-language learners, Indigenous, living with disabilities and in poverty.
Since then, the state has kicked in more than $1 billion targeted toward districts where these students attend school, according to John Sena, deputy director of the Legislative Education Study Committee.
Still, Sena started Thursday’s joint interim committee of education and Native American leaders by telling lawmakers, “Despite these large investments, though, and in part because of the effects of the COVID 19 pandemic, it is unclear whether New Mexico students, and particularly those named in the lawsuit, are any better off.”
He went on to argue that legislators need to review the investments to determine if money is being spent effectively, and “whether individual programs and initiatives are being used in a way that maximizes their impacts and improves student outcomes.”
Singleton’s ruling in Yazzie-Martinez does call for financial resources to boost local school district budgets. So Sena’s nudge for legislators could soon unfold in court.
Lawyers from the New Mexico Law and Poverty Center that represent plaintiffs in the suit told lawmakers during the meeting that a few weeks ago they wrapped up discovery for a motion filed in 2020 to examine whether the state is following the court order.
This batch of information could be very telling about the status of New Mexico’s public education system and compliance with the order. It may offer a look into how the surge of new money is being spent, and whether it’s helping students.
“So the Yazzie and Martinez legal teams, we’re now currently in the process of reviewing all the information we’ve obtained through discovery to determine the next course of action in this case,” said Melissa Candelaria, a lawyer for the Yazzie plaintiffs.
The state’s discussion draft of and strategic plan — which is still under review — is a good step, but Candelaria (San Felipe) said she wants to see details that meet the court’s order.
“None of us want to be in litigation forever,” she said, and the plaintiffs are ready and willing to work with the Public Education Department “to close achievement gaps and to move the needle. “But if the state doesn’t come up with a solid plan to satisfy the court’s order, it may ultimately have to intervene as it has done in the past.”
PED Secretary of Identity, Equity, and Transformation Dr. Vickie Bannerman said her staff is weighing public comments on the strategic plan and expects a new draft to be ready for review by Sept. 30. The final plan is expected no later than November.
The most consistent public comment on the plan was for the state to support educational growth for Native American students, Bannerman said.
“Until we have absolutely done everything we can for every student we can, we’re not done. So this review is ongoing. This will not stop. It’s a living, breathing, changing document.”
Busloads of new educators
Lawmakers also received an update on whether teacher recruitment and pay increases helped fill more than 1000 teacher vacancies in schools across the state.
PED secretary Kurt Steinhaus said he surveyed each of the state’s 89 school districts and reported more than 300 new teachers are in New Mexico public schools.
“If you imagine 50 school buses right out here in front of this school filled with teachers, that’s how many additional teachers this year licensed and fully prepared are in our classrooms this year,” he said.
However, there might not be someone to drive those busses. Steinhaus said bus drivers are the biggest need for school support staff.
In the classroom, he stressed that the state needs more special education teachers.
Steinhaus said his staff took on a review of work required for teachers that is separate from classroom instruction. He said they pinpointed redundant paperwork teachers have to file, either with the state or their district, and found a way to reduce it by 40%.
He argued this is a part of meeting the Yazzie-Martinez requirements of providing more classroom instruction time and to “give teachers more time to spend with their students and their families.”
That balance is necessary, especially in the targeted districts in the lawsuit. As Sena pointed out in his presentation, “New Mexico’s high-poverty schools have a disproportionately high number of lower quality teachers. The quality of teaching for at-risk students is inadequate.”
‘Failure is expensive’
Many of the biggest legislative victories in reforming education under the Yazzie-Martinez order have come from Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia).
He passed a bill to increase funding for traditional language instructors, found ways to create autonomy for tribal education departments and won millions in funding for tribal library systems.
Lente is working to implement the Tribal Remedy Framework, an initiative presented in 2019 and endorsed by all 23 tribes in New Mexico.
During his presentation Thursday he called for more.
“Failure is expensive. I’ve brought that to the table,” he said. “The failure of our children in the Yazzie-Martinez plaintiffs suit is expensive, and it will continue to be expensive.”
To match costs and avoid appropriation requests he considers “nickel and dimes,” Lente presented an idea to create a Tribal Education Trust Fund that could be modeled after endowments the state has already secured. For instance, oil and gas royalties go into permanent funds and contribute up to $1 billion each year for state operations.
Some of the Tribal Education Trust Fund would come from appropriations in the Indian Education Act, which grew substantially last year — from $1 million annually to $15 million — in part because of Lente’s lobbying efforts.
Lente proposes a start of at least $200 million, and the bulk of it would have to come from the Legislature.
The fund would require legislative approval, and Lente said his vision of the endowment would “provide annual distributions to tribes that will be based on a formula yet to come.”
He would like it to be used to support policies in the Tribal Remedy Framework that build systems such as teacher pipelines and curriculum programs in universities such as UNM and tribal colleges.
“The revenue is available,” Lente said. “ We have historic revenues this year again.”
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