June 30, 2020

Judge denies PED motion to dismiss Yazzie/Martinez suit

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Headquarters of the Public Education Department in Santa Fe.

The plaintiffs in a long-running court case on New Mexico’ education funding and policies were dealt two wins on Monday. State district judge Matthew Wilson denied a motion by the state to dismiss a pending years-old lawsuit against the New Mexico Public Education Department that said the state did not do enough to provide an adequate education to students. 

Wilson’s ruling means the court will continue to monitor the case until a complete overhaul of the state’s education system is complete. Wilson also approved a motion from the plaintiffs to allow further discovery in the case to gauge how much improvement the state has made since a court order in 2018.

“There is a lack of evidence in this case that the defendants have substantially satisfied this court’s express orders regarding all at risk students,” Wilson said. “The court’s injunction requires comprehensive educational reform that demonstrates substantial improvement and that these students are actually college or career ready.”

Monday’s hearing was the latest in the ongoing case that involves two different lawsuits filed against PED in 2014. The two cases were combined to become what is now commonly referred to as the Yazzie/Martinez case. In 2018, the late state district judge Sarah Singleton issued a landmark ruling that said New Mexico was not doing enough to ensure adequate education for “at risk” students, such as English language learners and Native American students who may face geographical and socioeconomic challenges to getting an education.

One of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s campaign promises in 2018 was that she would not appeal the court’s decision. 

Taylor Rahn, a contract attorney representing PED, argued on Monday that the state complied with court orders and implemented changes by last April. 

“We’re not throwing up our hands and saying we’re done,” Rahn said. “But what we’re saying is that we’ve taken enough action to show immediate steps by April 15, 2019 to improve the public education system which is what the court required.”

In his ruling, Wilson acknowledged that the state took immediate action to avoid “irreparable harm” but added, “That doesn’t end the analysis in this case.”

Martin Estrada, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, cited the state’s decision not to appeal the 2019 decision and he argued that a motion to dismiss was the state’s attempt to remove itself from the lawsuit. 

“We have commented that this motion, in our view, is remarkable in the sense that it comes so early, when the job is not nearly completed or even near completion,” Estrada said. 

Rahn went on to argue that the state made significant changes to education by the April 2019 deadline and that the state continues to improve education and increase funding.  

Last fall the plaintiffs filed a motion for additional discovery in order to try and track the PED’s progress, which the state opposed. 

On Monday Wilson also ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and approved that additional discovery, also ordering all parties to work together to come up with a discovery timeline. 

The plaintiffs didn’t win all their motions.

Wilson denied one motion asking the court to implore the PED to come up with a detailed plan for complying with the court’s 2018 order. 

Gail Evans, an attorney for the plaintiffs, argued that a detailed plan is the best way to keep the PED on track.  

“We’re not here asking the court to do the work of the Legislature and the executive branches,” Evans said. “Instead we’re asking the court to exercise the traditional role of the court to ensure that the constitution is upheld and rights are not violated. And your honor, at this point, the only way that will happen is if the state is ordered to develop and implement a plan.”

Rahn, the attorney representing the PED, argued that there is no evidence that the state failed to meet requirements set out in the 2018 ruling. 

“Basically plaintiffs are saying that the state had a chance and we blew it and I don’t think the evidence bears that out,” Rahn told the judge. “There’s been significant increases in funding and specific changes in programs that have demonstrated a clear plan for compliance. And what’s implicit in the plaintiffs’ request is that they get to now dictate what compliance looks like.”

Wilson said he denied the motion to order a compliance plan from the PED partly because he wanted to give “deference” to the Legislature for education funding and because the new upcoming discovery period will likely highlight any shortcomings. 

Legislators and educators praised Wilson’s decision to not dismiss the case. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, said the lawsuit directly impacts his community. 

“My district includes all of the children named in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit. I will continue to work tirelessly to ensure they have their constitutional right to a sufficient and uniform education,” Lente said in an emailed statement. “Politics has no place in the education of our children, and it is my hope the work that lies ahead will be done with a spirit of cooperation that will yield many benefits for our state’s most important asset, our children.” 

Anpao Duta Flying Earth, the executive director of NACA Inspired Schools Network, a network of indigenous-based schools, praised the decision in a statement, by saying, “Today, the courts have reaffirmed the ruling that brought attention to the generational inequity found in our public education system. This comes at a time where our state’s historically and systematically marginalized populations –especially Native children, English learners, and children with disabilities–  are in need of decisive and effective leadership to overcome a global pandemic.”