Judge: Lack of pre-K ac­cess among N.M. de­fi­cien­cies

Or­der re­quires state to ad­dress un­der­funded ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams, but how much should be spent not spec­i­fied

The Taos News - - LOCAL NEWS - By Robert Nott [email protected]­i­can.com Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mex­ico,

In a le­gal move that in­ten­si­fies pres­sure on state law­mak­ers and the gover­nor to in­crease spend­ing on New Mex­ico schools, a state district judge re­cently is­sued a fi­nal or­der in a law­suit against the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment; it not only re­quires a rem­edy to un­der­funded pro­grams but also de­tails the many ways the agency has failed its stu­dents.

First Ju­di­cial District Judge Sarah Sin­gle­ton first ruled in July on

agree­ing with plain­tiffs’ ar­gu­ments that the state is not pro­vid­ing enough money to of­fer a qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion for cer­tain groups of stu­dents: low-in­come chil­dren, English-lan­guage learn­ers, Na­tive Amer­i­cans and stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties.

She gave the state un­til April 15 to find a so­lu­tion.

In late De­cem­ber, af­ter re­view­ing more than 1,000 pages of facts and find­ings from the plain­tiffs – a coali­tion of stu­dents, par­ents and school dis­tricts – as well as from the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment, Sin­gle­ton filed a 600-page or­der ex­plain­ing spe­cific needs that are not be­ing met.

She cited a lack of in­struc­tional ma­te­ri­als, pro­grams and teacher train­ing to ad­dress the needs of stu­dents in the high-risk groups, along with a lack of ac­ces­si­bil­ity to prekinder­garten classes.

Just 31 per­cent of the state’s 215,000 stu­dents in grades three to 11 scored pro­fi­cient in read­ing on the last round of the an­nual statewide ex­ams called PARCC, which stands for Part­ner­ship for the As­sess­ment of Readi­ness for Col­lege and Ca­reers.

The state came up with a pro­gram to im­prove lit­er­acy skills, called Read to Lead, Sin­gle­ton said in her rul­ing, but ad­min­is­tra­tive bar­ri­ers tied to fund­ing for the pro­gram de­terred many dis­tricts from pur­su­ing it for stu­dents who needed the ex­tra help.

Gov. Michelle Lu­jan Gr­isham, who has said she won’t chal­lenge Sin­gle­ton’s rul­ing, is­sued an ex­ec­u­tive or­der last week end­ing use of PARCC read­ing and math tests af­ter the 2018-19 school year.

As for pre-K – which Lu­jan Gr­isham has called as a pri­or­ity for her ad­min­is­tra­tion – Sin­gle­ton pointed out stud­ies tout­ing its ben­e­fits when it is avail­able to all stu­dents. But the Pub­lic Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment hasn’t al­lo­cated enough fund­ing to of­fer preschool pro­grams to stu­dents in all 89 dis­tricts, the judge said.

Last year, the de­part­ment an­nounced a $10 mil­lion in­crease for state pre-K pro­grams for the cur­rent school year – bring­ing to­tal spend­ing to $33.6 mil­lion. The change opened up 1,500 new spots and ex­panded the pro­gram to 11 dis­tricts. Even with the new fund­ing, how­ever, the pro­gram serves chil­dren in only

65 dis­tricts, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported in May.

“The court’s find­ings of facts and con­clu­sions of law are a damn­ing in­dict­ment of the state’s school sys­tem,” said Gail Evans, an at­tor­ney with the New Mex­ico Cen­ter for Law and Poverty, which rep­re­sents a plain­tiff in the case.

Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence last week, Lu­jan Gr­isham said meet­ing the man­dates in Sin­gle­ton’s rul­ing will be a pri­or­ity in the up­com­ing leg­isla­tive ses­sion, sched­uled to be­gin at noon Tues­day (Jan.

15).

The big ques­tion: How? Evans and other ad­vo­cates for plain­tiffs in the case have urged state lead­ers to in­vest at least $1 bil­lion more per year in pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion.

But Sin­gle­ton’s fi­nal or­der, like her July rul­ing, does not spec­ify how much the state should spend to ad­dress the de­fi­cien­cies.

That could cre­ate con­flict dur­ing the ses­sion, a time when many spe­cial-in­ter­est groups ar­rive at the state cap­i­tal with hats in hand, ask­ing law­mak­ers to help fund their pro­grams.

Although leg­is­la­tors might have a pro­jected $1.2 bil­lion in new rev­enues from the oil and gas in­dus­try to divvy up this year, many have cau­tioned it would be un­wise to al­lo­cate this one-time bar­rel of money for re­cur­ring ex­penses.

“We’ve got a lot of back­fill­ing to do with that [money],” said state Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Dem­ing, who chairs the Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee. Oil prices could still fluc­tu­ate, he added, and “we have to be care­ful with what we have.”

The Se­nate Fi­nance Com­mit­tee will weigh in­put from ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tees on how to “ad­dress the judge’s is­sues,” he said, “... [and] give us some­thing that’s re­spon­si­ble and sus­tain­able – and what I mean by re­spon­si­ble is some­thing we can un­fold in a rea­son­able time frame and de­liver a qual­ity prod­uct.”

Sen. Mimi Ste­wart, D-Al­bu­querque, said the Leg­isla­tive Fi­nance Com­mit­tee and the Leg­isla­tive Ed­u­ca­tion Study Com­mit­tee are work­ing to­gether to come up with a rea­son­able plan, which likely will in­clude ad­just­ing the state’s per-stu­dent fund­ing for­mula to bet­ter ac­com­mo­date youth with greater needs.

Both com­mit­tees will meet Mon­day (Jan. 14), Ste­wart said.

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