February 14, 2019

Advocates in education lawsuit say lawmakers’ budget falls short

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An advocate for one of the plaintiffs in the landmark court case mandating improvements in New Mexico’s public schools said Wednesday that state lawmakers are failing to comply.

“The Legislature has dropped the ball on funding needed to move the state toward compliance with the court ruling,” said Preston Sanchez, an attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represents one set of plaintiffs in the case.

The Legislative Finance Committee has proposed spending an additional $416 million for public education in the coming year. Of that total, $113 million would be directed toward at-risk students who headlined the lawsuit.

“It’s not enough,” Sanchez said.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, countered that the Legislature’s funding plan “absolutely” will fulfill the court’s directive.

Sanchez also advocated for three bills, all introduced by Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas. Salazar says they address requirements of the ruling by state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton.

One of Salazar’s proposals, House Bill 120, focuses on the state’s shortage of teachers. It is intended to increase the number of bilingual teachers by providing grants to students who want to earn degrees in bilingual and multicultural education.

Another of his proposals, House Bill 111, would provide money for professional development for educators on matters of linguistics and culture.

The third measure, House Bill 159, would align the responsibilities of the New Mexico Indian Education Act, the Hispanic Education Act and the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act.

Singleton said the state is not doing enough through those programs to reach the children they are supposed to help.

A total of $15 million would be needed to fund those three bills, Salazar said.

Legislators and the governor have until April 15 to devise a plan that meets Singleton’s decree. The 60-day legislative session ends March 16.

Salazar said he is waiting for his bills to be considered by the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. He said he hopes they will find their way into the final budget, given that 30 days remain to approve legislation.

Even before the session began, advocates for the plaintiffs said they feared legislators would not come up with either enough money or pertinent programming to satisfy the court ruling.

Some asked for an extra $1 billion in state funds to serve those students, many of whom are impoverished, are learning English as a second language or have special needs.

Egolf said an extra $500 million should be sufficient to satisfy the court’s directives. That is the amount Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has proposed.

Egolf said $1 billion in extra funding is not realistic. The state, he said, does not have the capacity — including enough teachers — to implement all the necessary programs in just one year.

“That’s why we need a four or five-year phase-in,” he said. “We need to get teacher-training schools ramped up … and all of that takes time.”