New Mexico judge rejects bid to dismiss education case

FILE - In this April 15, 2020 file photo New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state Capitol during a news conference in Santa Fe, N.M. The leader of one of the largest Native American tribes in the U.S. called Wednesday, June 23, 2020, on Lujan Grisham to end efforts to fight a court ruling that orders improvements in education for members of his tribe and other vulnerable groups.

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A New Mexico judge on Monday rejected a motion by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to dismiss a landmark education lawsuit that was filed against the state and cleared the way for groups behind the complaint to further scrutinize the state's efforts.

First District Judge Matthew Wilson had to decide whether to dismiss or more aggressively enforce a 2018 ruling that found the state fell short of providing New Mexico children with a sufficient education.

The lawsuit filed by Hispanic and Navajo plaintiffs successfully argued that the state failed most schoolchildren, including English-language learners and Indigenous and low-income children and children with disabilities. It was filed in 2014 and went to trial in 2017, when Republican Susana Martinez was governor.

The 2018 verdict by the late Judge Sarah Singleton ordered the state to fix funding and inequality issues by April 2019.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, supported the lawsuit during her gubernatorial campaign and dropped an appeal of the lawsuit that was mounted by Martinez's administration when she took office. Her motion seeking to dismiss the case came later.

A lawyer for the state argued that the Lujan Grisham administration has taken significant steps to address the court's order during the 18 months that she has been in office.

The governor and state Legislature have passed across-the-board teacher raises, increased education funding both in raw numbers and as a percent of the total state budget, and increased the amount of funding allocated to at-risk students.

But lawyers for the families suing the state argue that the government's efforts needs to make more targeted investments and policies to support the specific needs of underserved children.

For example, Native American children live in largely rural areas and need greater access to high-speed internet, attorney Preston Sanchez said. Pay raises could be targeted to retain teachers willing to work in rural areas, or qualified with cultural and linguistic training.

"We’re asking this court to take urgent action to develop a comprehensive plan to address the educational crisis,” said Sanchez, of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Wilson credited the state for taking what he called “immediate action." But he ruled that the increases in funding and changes so far were not substantial enough to end the court's involvement in the case.

“The state cannot be deemed to have complied with this court’s orders until it shows that the necessary programs and reforms are being provided to all at-risk students to ensure that they have the opportunity to be college and career ready,” Wilson told lawyers and about 200 people watching the hearing via a video broadcast and listening on phone lines because of COVID-19 closures.

In asking Wilson to dismiss the case, Lujan Grisham said she was trying to maintain the independence of the Public Education Department.

“What’s implicit in the plaintiffs request, your Honor, is that they get to now dictate what compliance looks,” said Taylor Rahn, an attorney for the state.

Wilson also granted lawyers suing the state the right to gather more evidence from the Public Education Department and other state agencies, including documents that wouldn’t be open to public inspection. He stopped short of compelling the state to develop a plan or take specific actions, but noted he would consider such an order in the future.

The lawsuit began in 2014 by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund on behalf of English Language learners and was later merged with a separate lawsuit by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty representing Native American students.

The consolidated lawsuit is known as Martinez/Yazzie after two mothers who are plaintiffs in the case — Louise Martinez, who is Hispanic, and Wilhelmina Yazzie, who is Navajo.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

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