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
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.
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.