Judge’s landmark ruling is a chance for reform, experts say
Behind the recent ruling in the New Mexico school funding lawsuit is nearly a decade of evidence that the state's public schools are not only failing children, but that children will be "irreparably harmed" if schools aren’t improved.
Those strong words come directly from First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton’s ruling on July 20.
Whether or not the state appeals the ruling, as it’s vowed to do, New Mexico will have to address deep problems. Can it possibly turn things around?
Experts, advocates and attorneys in the case have a variety of responses to the question. But they also voice cautious optimism about putting New Mexico’s schoolhouse in order. The key is to plan wisely, give money to the most effective programs and monitor them closely, all say.
“My hope is that this will light a fire and give the whole state an opportunity to reflect on how can we do things differently,” said Jenny Parks, CEO of the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) Foundation, a New Mexico nonprofit that advocates for excellence in public education.
The problem, she stressed, cannot be solved by simply throwing money at schools. “We have to have meaningful reform to go along with it.”
A lot of money will be required. Coincidentally, a bundle was recently found. State economists this month announced that New Mexico has an unexpected $1.2 billion in additional revenues to use in the next annual budget, thanks to increased oil prices.
“That’s a game-changer,” says Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee. “We have never seen anything like it.”
The funds won’t all go to education, of course. And a single windfall doesn’t make New Mexico wealthy. Is the state too poor to pay more for education?
Lawmakers have frequently made the argument over the years that the state can’t afford to spend any more, especially after the 2008 recession and subsequent collapse in energy prices. This might not be the case, however.
An examination of national data shows that, on average, some of the poorest states in the country spend $1,000 more per pupil than New Mexico. Louisiana, ranked 50th for child economic well-being in the Annie E. Casey Foundation's 2018 national Kids Count rankings, recently spent $11,038 per pupil -- $1,345 more per pupil than New Mexico, which spent $9,693 (and is ranked 49th in that category).
Singleton's ruling, meanwhile, directs the state to reform the way it finances and manages public school by next April, by which time the state and the Public Education Department (PED) must “address the shortcomings of the current system.”
Teachers are paramount, when it comes to reforming education. New Mexico will be looking to improve teacher quality, while trying to hire thousands of certified teachers to fill vacancies, and also while looking for ways to support teachers, who’ve suffered low salaries, punitive evaluation systems and general lack of support, the judge found.
Advocates from every corner call for a funding boost for programs that help children succeed from the start: full-day pre-kindergarten, proven to close the achievement gap between at-risk children and their peers; and K-3 Plus, which adds 25 days of instruction per year in high-poverty or failing schools.
The state will also need to provide a sufficient number of textbooks, computers, counselors, tutors, social workers, special education services, multicultural and language classes, and relevant courses for Native Americans and other cultures, the lawsuit points out.
Parks says a citizens’ group should work alongside government to “create a long-term strategic plan and vision for education in the state.” The plan could build on the work that’s already been done by the Legislative Education Study Committee (LESC).
The LESC, along with the Legislative Finance Committee, lawmakers and education advocates, has formulated a number of ways to create a public education system that meets the needs of students -- and the law.
“It’s going to take collaboration, and I don’t mean just with PED and the legislature but also with the local communities, the tribal communities and the organizations that also serve the needs of students,” says Preston Sanchez, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs in Yazzie v. New Mexico. The work is critical, he says. “It’s about educational opportunities.”
Editor's note: Searchlight New Mexico receives funding support from the LANL Foundation and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.