Law & Courts

A-F School Grading Targeted in N.M. Equity Suit

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2014 5 min read
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Among the many school-funding lawsuits focused on equity and adequacy around the country, a case in New Mexico stands out. It focuses on the state’s A-F accountability and teacher-evaluation policies—not strictly on spending levels—in targeting what the plaintiffs say are an unfair distribution of resources that makes the state’s education budget a showcase for inequality.

The suit, filed late last month by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), says the high-profile policies popular in several states effectively deprive low-income and English-language-learner students of key resources.

The challenge also represents pushback, albeit indirectly, to the Foundation for Excellence in Education, the Tallahassee, Fla.-based group led by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican. The group lobbies states to adopt policies like A-F accountability. New Mexico’s Secretary of Education-Designate Hanna Skandera, who is a champion of the A-F system, used to work for the foundation.

And this court challenge by MALDEF is only one front in the battle over state funding in New Mexico. In a separate suit, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, an Albuquerque-based law firm and advocacy group, is challenging the state over what it says is inequitable school funding.

Meanwhile, perhaps the most significant K-12 funding lawsuit in the past three decades, New Jersey’s Abbott v. Burke case, recently added another chapter in court—the 22nd in fact. A new complaint was filed March 27 with that state’s Supreme Court claiming Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, is failing to live up to what prior Abbott rulings require.

Ignored and Damaged

The plaintiffs in the MALDEF suit say that New Mexico is failing in its unique constitutional obligations to Spanish-speaking students and multicultural education, and to recognize the greater needs of students who qualify for free and-reduced-price meals. They say the state is primarily focused on “increasing the rigor of testing and accountability requirements, among other ‘educational reform’ efforts—paying no mind to the overall negative effect on its duty to provide a uniform and sufficient education.”

Legal Wrangling

A long-running court fight in one state and a pair of fresh lawsuits in another keep the pot boiling on the K-12 funding-equity issue.

New Jersey
In the 22nd round of the landmark Abbott v. Burke school funding case that began in 1981, the Education Law Center, representing the plaintiffs, argues that the state has walked away from the School Funding Reform Act by not specifying how much state aid districts are entitled to under the New Jersey school funding formula.

New Mexico
Two separate lawsuits challenge the state’s K-12 funding system:

• The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund is taking aim at New Mexico’s A-F accountability policies and its teacher-evaluation system that’s based, in part, on test scores. The group argues that this drives teachers away from some schools and unfairly impacts the state’s obligation to educate needy students.

• The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty says the state has failed to provide a sufficient education for K-12 students, and cites the poor achievement of students in the state as evidence.

The suit claims the A-F accountability system not only includes suspicious “wide fluctuations” in school grades, but in many cases drives experienced teachers away from the neediest students. The teacher-evaluation system, the plaintiffs allege, is damaging because of the high percentage (50 percent) of teacher ratings that are based on students’ scores on the state’s standardized tests, punishing teachers who need more institutional support.

The suit was filed in the state’s First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe.

David Hinojosa, the regional counsel at the southwest regional office of MALDEF, said of the suit’s broad challenge to state policy, “This is very unlike other school adequacy cases that have been filed across the country.”

The upshot, the plaintiffs say, is the “dismal results” on academic indicators for New Mexico students and the majority of schools receiving a C grade or less on the A-F scale. A “bare majority” of students, for example, were proficient in reading, the suit says, with Hispanic and low-income students consistently lagging by double-digit gaps on reading measures.

Although the plaintiffs highlight a 2008 report commissioned by the legislature showing schools to be underfunded by $334 million, Mr. Hinojosa said MALDEF would likely have filed suit even if the state had a significantly higher K-12 budget. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, by contrast, told the Associated Press that if the state had acted on that 2008 spending report, its lawsuit would have become unnecessary.

‘We Have the Results’

Ms. Skandera, however, said in an interview that dramatic improvements in measurable student performance, both in absolute terms and in examinations of achievement gaps, show that New Mexico is on the right track.

“Our opponents can only argue politics because we have the results,” she said, while declining to discuss the specifics of either lawsuit against the state.

Although New Mexico’s high school graduation rate remains relatively low when compared to other states, Ms. Skandera highlighted the jump in that rate from 63 percent for the 2010-11 school year to 70 percent for the 2011-12 school year. That was an all-time high for New Mexico, with gains from Hispanic and Native American students outpacing those of other demographic groups.

On Advanced Placement tests, Hispanic students in the state were tops in the country earlier this year in terms of both participation and success rates (measured by those scoring at least a 3 on the 5-point exam). For the younger students, 3rd grade reading proficiency improved last year by 3 percentage points after declining the previous year. At the same time, total state aid for public school has increased in recent years, Ms. Skandera said, including $171 million in new funds for public schools approved for the 2014-15 school year.

“They’re proud, because they’re receiving credit for student achievement and improvement like they’ve never seen before,” said Ms. Skandera, referring to schools’ response to the A-F system.

Districts like Albuquerque are also seeing declines in teacher absenteeism, she said, because of changes to the state’s evaluation system.

The latest motion from plaintiffs in New Jersey’s Abbott case says the budget proposed in February by Gov. Christie doesn’t tell districts whether the amounts of state aid would adhere to the funding formula in the School Finance Reform Act, which came out of prior Abbott rulings.

The governor has said that his budget raises total state aid to schools by $37 million for the 2014-15 school year to over $9 billion, “the most school funding in New Jersey history.”

But to satisfy the formula, the state would need to allocate at least $350 million in additional aid for the fiscal 2015 budget, said David Sciarra, the executive director of the Education Law Center, a Newark, N.J.-based funding advocacy group that filed the latest complaint and represented the original Abbott plaintiffs in 1981.

“What the governor is proposing unquestionably doesn’t comply with what the formula would require,” Mr. Sciarra said.

A spokesman for the New Jersey department, Michael Yaple, said the department was on track to meet a target date of April 28 for providing the appropriate information about state aid to districts.

A version of this article appeared in the April 23, 2014 edition of Education Week as N.M. Lawsuit Puts A-F School Grading At Center of Funding-Equity Debate

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