Civil Rights Groups Take New Mexico to Court in Fight Over Equitable Education
Two civil rights groups want a New Mexico judge to rule that the state's education system is failing to meet its constitutional responsibilities for groups of students, including English-language learners, Native Americans, economically disadvantaged students, and students with disabilities.
A nine-week trial begins Monday—and lawyers for the plaintiffs say the case could have ramifications well beyond the state's borders.That's because the lawyers for the parents and school districts says the state not only underfunds public schools, but essentially ignores the state's "longstanding bilingual and multicultural history."
State District Judge Sarah Singleton consolidated two lawsuits filed by the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty that allege that New Mexico does not provide sufficient funding or enrichment opportunities to all students.
More than two-thirds of students in the state are Latino or Native American, and 16 percent of students are classified as English-learners.
Officials with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez's administration have denied the allegations, saying more money is being spent on education in New Mexico than ever before.
Education Week could not immediately reach education department officials for comment on the upcoming trial. The state's current education secretary, Hanna Skandera, is set to resign on June 20.
Originally filed a month apart in spring 2014, the lawsuits were brought by groups of parents across the state with several school districts signing on later.
Advocates argue that language in New Mexico's constitution mandates that state government provide an adequate public school education for all school-age children, and that the state has consistently fallen short of meeting that standard.
Santa Fe schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia, who served as the state's first cabinet-level education secretary from 2003 to 2010, is among the witnesses expected to testify for the plaintiffs.
The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund has pursued similar cases in Texas and Colorado in recent years.
The New Mexico case will be "one of the most comprehensive school funding lawsuits filed in the country," said Marisa Bono, southwest regional counsel for MALDEF. "This is not just a landmark case for New Mexico, but a landmark case nationally."
While all sides have acknowledged that New Mexico is grappling with a budget crisis, the parents and school leaders still want a judge to pressure the state to develop a plan to address systemic problems in the state's public K-12 schools and "provide every student with an opportunity to succeed," Bono said.
New Mexico courts have never considered this question, Bono said, so an appeal is likely regardless of the outcome.