February 23, 2020

Hundreds of millions for education, but will it satisfy court’s order?

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State Rep. Derrick Lente spent much of the last year crisscrossing New Mexico to speak with Native American leaders about the needs of kids in their communities. To address them, he sponsored a handful of legislation endorsed by all 23 of the state’s tribes.

“It’s unprecedented to have that sort of support for legislation,” said Lente, a Sandia Pueblo Democrat. “I approached this from the bottom up. I went to every single tribe and got their buy-in for a bottom-up remedy.”

Among Lente’s proposals were $650,000 for a Native college readiness program; $19.8 million for at-risk college students; and $16.2 million for tribal libraries, internet infrastructure and early childhood education. They were among some 40 bills addressing Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, a landmark education lawsuit in which a state district judge ruled New Mexico has denied several groups of students, including Native Americans, their constitutional right to an education.

Just four of those 40 bills made it to the finish line before the legislative session ended Thursday.

That frustrates not only Lente — who said many tribal leaders showed up at the state Capitol to voice support for his bills — but many other lawmakers, attorneys and advocates for plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit who argue the state’s response to the judge’s 2018 ruling has been insufficient.

While some say state funding for education is still inadequate, many cite larger concerns: Too little of the money targets students who need it most, and communities and schools have too little control over the specific types of programs and services funded.

Lawmakers like Lente had hoped to change that.

“My expectation going into the session was these series of bills would have some funding appropriations to them,” Lente said of his proposals. “I thought we had an education moonshot, so I thought there would be some consideration.”

Nearly 45 percent of the state’s $7.6 billion budget for fiscal year 2021 — $3.4 billion — is allocated for public education. Following an increase of nearly half a billion dollars in education spending approved in the 2019 session, lawmakers added $217 million for public schools this year. That means public education funding has risen by more than 25 percent from 2018-19 levels.

Attorney Gail Evans with the nonprofit New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which is representing the Yazzie plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said it appears that in fiscal year 2021, education funding and teacher salaries will return to 2008 levels, when adjusted for inflation.

She called the amount woefully inadequate.

Some of the new public education funds will address the needs of students deemed underserved in the Yazzie/Martinez ruling. For instance, $5.5 million is targeted at programs for indigenous, multicultural and special-education students.

But critics say New Mexico needs a response to the lawsuit that extends beyond funding increases.

“They are looking at dollar amounts to put into the education budget instead of investing from the ground up into the programs we need,” Evans said. “Are students being prepared to be college and career ready? The governor knows the answer is no. The speaker of the House knows the answer is no.”

Others say the dollar signs are proof the state is complying.

“Over the last 396 days, the state has increased K-12 education funding by three-quarters of a billion dollars. It’s unprecedented to have done that,” said House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe.

Noting Lente’s education bills, Egolf said, “We will continue that work, and get more plugged into the budget.”

Rep. Moe Maestas, D-Albuquerque, said the $3.4 billion budgeted for public education is a sign state legislators are committed to fulfilling the court mandate. But, he said, it is going to take some time “to move the needle” regarding academic achievement levels. 

Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, a member of the House Education Committee, doesn’t buy it.

“We are appropriating money right and left,” she said. “The problem is, I don’t think it’s strategic enough or targeted enough to make a difference.”

Lawmakers heard from school districts and tribes that they wanted more control over how to funnel money into programs they know will help at-risk students, she said. “We are giving them no flexibility.”

Rep. Andrés Romero, D-Albuquerque, a high school history teacher who chairs the House Education Committee, said the powerful legislative committees that craft the education budget should include the voices of educators.

There are now 17 active or retired public school employees in the Legislature, but none are on the Legislative Finance Committee.

“We have the legislators ready to have a lot more fruitful discussion around these matters,” Romero said.

Before this year’s session began, lawmakers from both the House and Senate education committees said their input was not taken into consideration when it came to education priorities.

Rep. Tomás Salazar, D-Las Vegas, another House Education Committee member, introduced two bills that would have provided money for more bilingual teachers, technical support and professional development in cultural and linguistic education. Both stalled.

“Anytime you fail to push legislation through, it’s a disappointment and concern,” said Salazar, who is not running for reelection.

Lente was more optimistic.

“I’m looking forward to next session,” he said. “I intend to bring back the same bills with the same endorsements. I’ve heard promises from the governor and the speaker about wanting to be a partner. I will call them on that and make sure they follow through with support.”

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the state is doing its job in meeting the mandates of the court case.

“The Legislature and the Executive have worked together to make record new investments in education and we all continue to take significant steps to address the court’s findings,” she said in an email.

She cited changes in the public school funding formula that will increase money for at-risk kids, allocations for Native and special-education students, and a brand-new Early Childhood Trust Fund to pay for expanded services for the state’s youngest residents.

A hearing is scheduled next month in Santa Fe on the state’s progress in meeting the mandates of the Yazzie/Martinez ruling. The plaintiffs plan to make their case that the state is not in compliance.  

District Judge Sarah Singleton, who ruled on the lawsuit in 2018, died in July. The case is now before District Judge Matthew Wilson.

Dow said her heart was “broken” over the lack of progress during the session to address Singleton’s ruling.

“The fact that so many bills came forward to address [Yazzie/Martinez] and only four of them passed speaks volumes,” she said. “And not in a good way.”