Yazzie v. State of NM: Still Not Enough $ for Schools


Philip Alexander, Author

The court case Yazzie v. State of New Mexico was brought against the Public Education Department by families and school districts who claimed that the state fails to provide students with a sufficient education. The plaintiffs were represented by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the state has failed to work with state and federal laws regarding the education of Native American and English Language Learner students, including the New Mexico Indian Education Act, Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, and the Hispanic Education Act, which resulted in an inadequate education system for New Mexico students.

On July 20, 2018, Judge Singleton ruled that all New Mexico students have a right to be college and career ready and that the state was failing to meet this obligation.

Part of the evidence in the case was the state’s low graduation rate of 70 percent and the fact that so many New Mexico students cannot read or do math at grade level. For example, according to the Court Findings, in Santa Fe between 2007 and 2014, the Non Proficiency Rates for 11th graders in reading ranged from 46.7 to 63.3 percent; the math rates were even worse, ranging from 63.9 to 73.1 percent.

According to “Courts Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law 2018 12 20, many New Mexico high school graduates “are underprepared for college, as only half of New Mexico’s high school graduates who attend college complete a four-year degree within six years.”

The judge’s order is simple and straightforward: The state must provide a sufficient education for all students. The state must come up with the resources necessary to meet students’ needs and monitor and evaluate its progress.

Teachers play a huge role in a student’s school life, and they will be getting raises next year. According to the NM Center on Law and Poverty, Representative Sheryl Williams Stapleton, a sponsor of the bill (HB 171) that raised salaries for teachers, said, “Teachers are the heart of education…. We have among the lowest teacher wages in the country, and one of the highest turnover rates. To be competitive with surrounding states, and to be compliant with the court order, teacher salaries must be increased and must be adjusted yearly for inflation.”

Sufficient funding for teacher recruitment will also be put in place, as well as efforts in training and retention. This is expected to attract more people into the profession, increase motivation, reduce turnover among teachers, and improve the graduation rate.

Many classes are overcrowded. According to NM Center on Law and Poverty, another initiative is to reduce class sizes, which can help students in a major way. Some students have a hard time learning in a crowded environment where teachers have can’t answer all the questions and address the needs of all students.

“Research shows that smaller class sizes are associated with higher achievement, higher earnings, higher high school graduates and higher college completion rates,” the court findings document reads.

Another thing that will be important for students is technology. Finding additional funding for technology in schools might sound difficult, but Judge Singleton ruled that lack of funds is not an excuse for not giving New Mexico’s students a good education.

According to New Mexico in Depth, “A coalition of plaintiffs, teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations want the governor and state lawmakers to dedicate $1 billion in new funding, double what the governor and the Legislature are proposing.”

But according to the NM Center on Law and Poverty, Tom Sullivan, a former superintendent, said, “The current budget proposal is barely returning to 2008 levels when education was already underfunded.” A graph created by Dr. Stephen Barro shows that the state appropriation in 2008 was $2.485 billion. For 2019, the expected amount was approximately $3.218 billion, but the actual amount appropriated was $2.81 billion.

“Filling a hole that gets us back to 2008 levels of funding is not the investment in education our Constitution requires,” writes Gail Evans, the lead attorney in the Yazzie case. “The increased funding will not be sufficient to ensure social services, counseling, health care and literacy specialists are available to all students who need them. It is not enough to cover basic instructional materials for the classroom, or to invest in our educators to attract and retain new teachers and expand their qualifications. It is not enough to ensure teaching is tailored to the unique cultural and linguistic needs of our students, including English-language learners and indigenous communities. And the transportation budget remains insufficient to ensure all students have the opportunity to participate in after-school and summer programs.”

James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children and former cabinet secretary of the Department of Finance and Administration said, “Big change requires a big investment, and a big investment is what we need to build a world-class education system.

“Education in New Mexico has been underfunded for decades” Jimenez continued. “We need to ensure that our schools are sufficiently-resourced to comply with the court’s order, and we need to be certain those resources are sustainable. We need to get off the oil and gas boom-to-bust roller coaster. Legislators need to look at our tax system and make sure it is fair for working families and that our revenue system is stable and sustainable.”

According to the court findings, the main way to raise the money is to increase taxes on things we use in our daily lives, such as gasoline, alcohol and oil.

Judge Singleton said that state officials should reverse how they’re funding public education: Instead of seeing how much they have to spend first, they should identify educational needs and then figure out how much they cost.