PED Cabinet Secretary Ryan Stewart
By DILLON MULLAN
State lawmakers in the special legislative session did not debate a non-binding House memorial opposing the state’s controversial effort to dismiss the groundbreaking Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit — frustrating advocates who said the Public Education Department has failed to make systemic changes to benefit high-needs students who would benefit from additional funding and programming.
District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in 2018 New Mexico denies English-language learners, special education students, Native American and low income students their constitutional right to a sufficient education. Although the state increased the K-12 education budget and championed K-5 Plus, which adds 25 days to the elementary school calendar, as a cornerstone to its response to the lawsuit, the Public Education Department announced in May the program would not take place this summer due to the COVID-19 crisis. And as the state’s budget hole deepened, legislators approved a revised budget that trims salary increases for school employees from an average of 4 percent to an average of 1 percent.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the state moved to dismiss the case earlier this year because it believes PED, not the courts, should oversee education reform.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, who co-sponsored the memorial along with Reps. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, and Micaela Lara Cadena, D-Doña Ana, said in an email time constraints prevented the memorial from receiving a hearing during the special session, which concluded Monday evening.
The memorial argues that two years since Singleton’s ruling — the judge died in 2019 — the Public Education Department has failed to make systematic changes to benefit the students named in the lawsuit.
“Honestly, at this point, we can’t trust the Public Education Department to do any reforms,” said Ernest Herrera, an attorney with the Mexican American Defense and Educational Fund, which represents the Martinez plaintiffs. “This dismissal wasn’t warranted, even before the pandemic.”
The memorial says funding schools without systemic change is not enough and calls for the state to develop a long-term comprehensive education plan that addresses systematic racism.
“We can’t just say Black lives matter or indigenous lives matter, or immigrant lives matter when we’re not actually addressing the causes of the gaps in our education system,” Rubio said. “We are in a place right now where we can’t just be talking about our past, we need to actually do something about it. Specifically, this case is about all the challenges we have experienced as a state when it comes to racism and the complexities of colonization.”
Secretary Ryan Stewart said the Public Education Department is working to address the needs of the students in the lawsuit, pointing to seven mobile cell towers outside community centers and 2,517 laptops delivered to Navajo Nation since the pandemic started.
“PED has instituted a statewide approach to ensure that racial minority groups have a seat at every district and charter school decision-making table,” Stewart said in an email to The New Mexican. “We are investing in the development of culturally relevant instructional materials, developing a statewide, culturally-relevant assessment system and investing in career technical pathways that are grounded in the economic development of the all regions of the state.”
The state’s move to dismiss the lawsuit will be discussed at a hearing scheduled for June 29 in front of First Judicial District Court Judge Matthew Wilson.