Lujan Grisham: No court control over education

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham came into office like many of her predecessors: with one court order after another hanging over her head.

The state’s prison system is still under a settlement agreement from the 1970s. The state’s services for people with developmental disabilities are the subject of a lawsuit from the 1980s. There’s a consent decree from the 1990s ordering the state Human Services Department to improve its assistance programs for needy families.

Now, Lujan Grisham fears her administration could end up under one more long-running court case after a judge ruled last year that New Mexico’s public education system violates the state Constitution when it comes providing for at-risk students.

The newly elected Democrat took office pledging she would not appeal the decision in Yazzie v. Martinez. And the deadline to file an appeal in the case came and went Monday. But as the state faces another deadline April 15 to prove that it is doing enough to comply with the decision, Lujan Grisham told reporters Monday that her administration will fight in court to avoid long-running court oversight, which could allow the courts broad supervision over New Mexico’s education system and potentially require additional accountability.

“We don’t want the court being the de facto public education system,” Lujan Grisham said.

The question is whether the courts and the civil rights groups involved in the case will be satisfied with the steps legislators and the governor have taken so far.

The comments came just two days after the state Legislature adjourned a 60-day session during which the court’s decision in Yazzie v. Martinez loomed large, serving at least in part as the impetus for lawmakers to put an extra $450 million into public education, including $113 million specifically targeted at those at-risk students.

And it comes as the Lujan Grisham administration overhauls the state’s standardized testing regime as well as its teacher evaluation system.

Last June state District Judge Sarah Singleton of Santa Fe sided with the plaintiffs who sued the state on grounds that the Legislature had not allocated enough money to provide a quality education for certain groups of students: low-income children, English-language learners, Native Americans and students with disabilities.

State leaders have until April 15 to prove to Singleton that they are now doing enough to provide a sufficient public education, as called for in the New Mexico Constitution. Singleton’s decision did not include a suggested price tag, leaving it to legislators and the governor to determine what that amount should be and what programs should be funded to meet the court decree.

The governor argued that the steps the state has taken, as well as the appointment of new leadership at the Public Education Department, should help convince a judge it is living up to the order from last year and she wants to stave off a protracted court battle.

“We are expecting we are going to be in a litigious environment even though we’re not appealing and we’re leaning in on the spirit of Yazzie v. Martinez,” she said.

The spirit of the decision is important, the governor added.

“I don’t think the court is wrong. We left too many … and certainly the two plaintiffs behind,” she said.

But she also said: “We want to be very concerned about a court running public education.”

Still, attorneys for the plaintiffs and former superintendents of some of the school districts who joined the lawsuit against the state argued during the recent legislative session that lawmakers were not investing enough in programs that will help those students, such as extended summer learning classes, or doing enough to recruit and retain bilingual educators to teach children learning English.

Tom Sullivan, former superintendent of the Moriarty-Edgewood school district — which took part in the lawsuit — said Monday that he did not think $450 million was enough to meet Singleton’s mandate.

“I don’t think they [legislators] have adequately valued the at risk-ness of our student population statewide,” he said. “New Mexico probably has the most at-risk population of students in the country, so to offer something that marginally addresses that is not, I think, sufficient.”

Ernest Herrera, an attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which represents a set of plaintiffs in the court case, said he is “encouraged by the first steps taken by the New Mexico Legislature and Governor Lujan-Grisham.”

But, he said, efforts to provide sufficient funding should continue with “long-term reforms.”

“The state of New Mexico earned court intervention through many years of neglect of its constitutional duty to New Mexico’s schoolchildren,” said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF. “While that neglect may have occurred under different leadership, this lawsuit is not about current state leadership, but about fulfilling the state’s guarantees to future leaders of the state who are currently in public school.”

Thomas Saenz, general counsel for MALDEF, said the agency will react to the state’s plan once it is submitted to Singleton for review.