More than half of New Mexico’s public high school juniors cannot read on grade-level. The state has the lowest high school graduation rate in the country. About half of the students who do graduate end up having to take remedial courses to catch up to their peers in college.
The statistics are especially bleak for low-income, Latino, Native American and so-called English language learner students, typically those for whom English is a second language.
For years, New Mexico has failed to provide its public schools with enough money to provide an adequate education, a state judge ruled Friday. This deficiency is a violation of the state’s constitution, which promises all students access to a sufficient and uniform education system.
Now, the state has 60 days to devise a plan that the court must approve that aims to help make all students ― including those in high-poverty areas ― ready for college and careers. And, Judge Sarah Singleton ruled, the state then has until April 15 to take steps to ensure that schools have sufficient resources to put the plan in place.
Advocates hail the decision as a “landmark” ruling that could have implications for underfunded education systems around the country.
The court has essentially told the state legislature: “I know it’s a tough job, but it’s your job, and you’ve got to do it,” said Gail Evans, legal director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty on a call with reporters.
The center helped bring the case on behalf of a group of local families, along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. The suit alleged that the state was violating the constitutional rights of marginalized students by deliberately maintaining a broken education system.
Advocates have urged state officials to resist an appeal of the Singleton’s ruling, saying the money and other resources that a continuing legal battle would consume should instead be channeled to helping improve the school system, which as of 2017 had an enrollment of close to 322,000 students.
“Rather than spending millions more dollars to fight, let’s roll up our sleeves and prioritize what needs to happen,” Evans said.
But the state plans to appeal the decision. New Mexico Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski criticized the ruling, saying the judge “missed the boat.”
Gov. Susana Martinez (R), who was first elected in 2010, and members of her administration have insisted that significant improvements to the school system have occurred under her tenure.
“New Mexico’s school turnaround efforts are now some of the strongest in the country; more students than ever are taking and passing [Advanced Placement] AP exams, and there is record-high student enrollment in early literacy programs,” Ruszkowski said in a statement. “Never before has New Mexico made this type of progress for kids in such a short period of time.”
But Singleton, in her ruling, offered a scathing assessment of the ways in which New Mexico has failed its children.
The state has failed to attract and maintain qualified educators, especially in remote or high-poverty areas, having a devastating impact on students there, she said. She took particular aim at the state’s punitive teacher evaluation system, which may “penalize teachers for working in high-need schools.”
Low teacher pay, the subject of protests in several other states this year, also contributes to the educational shortcomings, Singleton said.
There is “no doubt that the education being provided to at-risk children is resulting in dismal outcomes whether measured by test scores, graduation rates, or need for college-level remedial courses,” she wrote.
New Mexico’s younger generation is especially diverse. Slightly more than 60 percent of those under 19 years old are Hispanic, about 24 percent are non-Hispanic white, about 11 percent are Native American and 2 percent are black, according to the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which focuses on improving the lives of under-advantaged families.
“Our children are not Republicans, they’re not Democrats, they’re all children who come to school full of hope,” said Veronica Garcia, the superintendent of Santa Fe public schools. ”We cannot afford to lose a day, we have lost generations of children.”
State officials argued that New Mexico, which consistently ranks as one of the poorer states in median family income, lacks the tax money to fix the problems the judge outlined. The judge responded that ”lack of funds is not a defense to providing constitutional rights.”
She also rebuffed the argument that socioeconomic factors outside of schools’ control were the reason for the low achievement levels of marginalized students.
Advocates say they hope the ruling reverberates throughout the country and that judges in subsequent cases cite the decision. Other judges have taken varying views as to what a state owes its children. In Michigan earlier this month, a judge ruled that students in failing schools were not constitutionally guaranteed access to literacy.