By Wendy Lecker
In a major victory for New Mexico public school children, the district court, in a July 20 ruling, found that inadequate school funding violates the education article of New Mexico’s constitution, as well as violating the constitutional equal protection and due process rights of economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners and Native American students.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed Martinez v. State in 2014, on behalf of parents and students, to establish education as a fundamental right and ensure meaningful educational opportunities for all students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners (ELL), Native American, and/or of Spanish-heritage. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed a similar case, Yazzie v. State, also in 2014, and the trial court consolidated these cases. The trial team also included pro bono counsel Martin Estrada and his colleagues from Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles. The two- month trial before District Court Judge Sarah Singleton concluded in August 2017.
Judge Singleton held that the Legislature, through various statutes, has defined what a constitutionally adequate education is for New Mexico students and, accordingly, relied on those statutory provisions to determine whether the state met its constitutional obligations. The court also established the burden of proof in a school funding case in the state, holding that the plaintiffs must prove a constitutional violation by a preponderance of the evidence.
Judge Singleton found that there was sufficient proof presented at trial of inadequate essential educational resources in New Mexico’s schools. The evidence demonstrated that schools across the state suffered from inadequate instructional materials, curricula and teachers. The court highlighted that insufficient instructional material for Native Americans violated statutory mandates and therefore the constitutional rights of those students.
Judge Singleton determined that the essential resources to deliver a reasonable curriculum must include resources to provide at-risk students the opportunity to compensate for any barriers they may face. Thus, the court found as essential such programs as quality full-day pre-K, summer school, after-school programs, small class size and research-based reading programs. The court credited expert testimony at trial that ELL students in particular benefited from smaller class size.
In finding inadequate funding for teachers and teacher training, the court addressed the trial evidence on the impact of New Mexico’s test-based teacher evaluation system, noting that “punitive teacher evaluation systems that penalize teachers for working in high-need schools” exacerbated the quality-teacher supply deficits in these schools. The court also found that high-needs districts had more inexperienced teachers, noting that it “is well-recognized that inexperienced teachers are systematically less effective than experienced teachers.”
Inadequate Student Outcomes
Judge Singleton found that the inadequate inputs in New Mexico’s schools led to inadequate student outcomes. She found that New Mexico students rank at the bottom of the nation in English and Math proficiency and high school graduation. The numbers are even worse, she found, for low-income, Native American and ELL students.
The court rejected state claims that outputs are sufficient because at-risk students show growth in achievement. She held that growth is not sufficient, since vulnerable student groups, despite growth, are do not attain proficiency. The court also remarked that even the state is unhappy with the rate of growth among at-risk groups.
The court also credited the evidence demonstrating that of the New Mexico students attending college, a substantial number require remediation—proof that these students were not college-ready.
State Defenses Rejected
Judge Singleton rejected the State’s contention that state intervention was adequate in compensating for any inadequacies, noting that these interventions have not altered the evidence demonstrating that “at-risk students are still not attaining proficiency at the rate of non at-risk students.” The court found that the state Public Education Department assistance and oversight programs are piecemeal, and thus cannot replace adequate state school funding.
The court also dismissed the State’s excuse that students’ inadequate outcomes stem from socio-economic factors not attributable to the school system. Judge Singleton noted that while many of these factors exist outside schools, school programs, such as quality pre-K, K-3 Plus, extended school year, and quality teachers, have been proven to mitigate these factors and raise the achievement of at-risk students.
In fact, Judge Singleton noted the testimony of the State’s experts, such as Eric Hanushek, who concluded that funding does make a difference in outcomes for at-risk students.
Judge Singleton also rejected claims made by New Mexico often made by states in other school funding cases. Notably, the court noted that the State could not escape its constitutional responsibility by contending that it cannot control district spending, since the state has supervisory responsibility over local districts.
The court also dismissed the contention that the State is constrained by the limited money in the State budget from doing more. The court declared that, “the remedy for lack of funds is not to deny public school children a sufficient education, but rather the answer is to find more funds.”
In addition to finding the state in violation of the Education, Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the state constitution, the court’s declaratory judgment also found that the State:
- violated the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a uniform statewide system of free public schools sufficient for their education;
- failed to provide at-risk students with programs and services necessary to make them college or career ready;
- failed to provide sufficient funding for all districts to deliver the programs and services required by the Constitution; and
- failed to supervise districts to assure that funding has been spent in the most efficient manner to meet the need to provide at-risk students with the programs and services necessary to obtain an adequate education.
To remedy the constitutional violation, Judge Singleton ordered the Legislature by April 15, 2019, to “take immediate steps to ensure that New Mexico schools have the resources necessary to give at-risk students the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education that prepares them for college and career.” The court also ordered the state to implement an accountability system to measure whether programs and services in place actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education and to ensure that districts are spending funds in a way that efficiently and effectively meets the needs of at-risk students.
Judge Singleton has retained jurisdiction over the case in order to ensure state compliance with her orders.
Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center
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