Advocates for students revive lawsuit against New Mexico

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — School districts and parents revived litigation Wednesday that accuses the state of failing to provide a sound education to vulnerable children from minority communities, non-English speaking households, impoverished families and students with disabilities.

Two groups of plaintiffs filed motions in state district court to ensure compliance with a district judge's ruling that found lawmakers and state education officials were failing their constitutional obligations to ensure an adequate education.

Since that ruling, the Democrat-led Legislature and first-year Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have authorized a nearly half-billion dollar increase in annual spending on public education. They raised teacher salaries, channeled money toward at-risk students and extended academic calendars.

Gail Evans, a lead attorney at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty that represents parents of public-school children and school districts from suburban Rio Rancho to the rural town of Cuba, said much of the new state spending has been soaked up by mandated teacher salary increases, while administrative requirements hobbled efforts to extend the school year at many schools.

The center says the state did not come up with a transformative education plan to truly help vulnerable student groups — and that a court-ordered plan is needed.

"We're concerned about these ongoing half-measures," she said. "They are clearly not in compliance with their constitutional obligation."

In a statement, Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the state is rolling out major investments aimed at "closing the opportunity gap between at-risk students and their peers," describing extended learning programs that extend the school year and community school programming that can include more school counselors, teaching assistants and after-school programs.

"We recognize the urgency of making sure all students receive he education they deserve," Stewart said.

New Mexico is one of several states where courts have been called upon to shore up funding for public schools, amid frustration with elected officials over the quality of education and state budget priorities.

Attorneys used several years of data on the educational outcomes of students in New Mexico to build their case. Many of those outcomes — reading and math scores along with graduation rates and the need for remedial courses — were defined as dismal by Judge Sarah Singleton. Singleton, who oversaw a weekslong trial in the case, died in July. The case has been reassigned to district Judge Matthew Wilson.

Attorneys for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, representing additional plaintiffs in the case, said no laws have been passed to improve attention to students with disabilities, another focus of the lawsuit. The group is asking for further court proceedings to assess compliance with Singleton's ruling. That could include legal discovery and depositions of state officials.

"It's not clear that the money is going to reach the students it was designed to reach," MALDEF attorney Ernest Herrera said of new state educational spending.


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