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New Mexico Unveils Plan to Address Court Ruling on K-12 Failures

In response to a 2018 court ruling that deemed the state's K-12 education system inadequate for Native American students and other groups, the state has set new goals and plans for extended learning and at-risk students.

The New Mexico State Capitol in Santa Fe.
David Kidd/Governing
(TNS) — The state has unveiled a draft of a comprehensive plan officials hope will level the playing field for New Mexico's K-12 students.

Officials are seeking comment on the 55-page document, created to address a 2018 court ruling that deemed the state's K-12 education system inadequate for Native American students, English-language learners, kids with disabilities and low-income students who make up the majority of New Mexico's public school population.

The 2018 ruling in the landmark Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit cited lagging test scores, low graduation rates and high levels of college students entering remedial courses as evidence the state was failing to provide students with the qualified teachers, culturally competent curriculum and resources needed to successfully enter college or the workforce.

The new draft plan list several "targets for improvement" — including moving proficiency rates among the four student groups central to the lawsuit from 2019 levels by 50 percent in math and reading by the 2025-26 school year.

The state also plans to raise graduation rates among each group by 15 percent — eventually increasing the statewide four-year graduation rate to 90 percent by 2027 with no more than a 5 percentage point difference between student demographic groups. In 2021, 76.8 percent of the state's four-year seniors graduated on time. Statewide, the rate fell to 74.7 percent for English-language learners, 72.5 percent for low-income students, 71.5 percent for Native American students and 68 percent for students with disabilities.

Other goals include major decreases in teacher vacancies and boosting the retention rate among newly recruited teacher by 50 percent by 2025-26; creating more campus health centers; making sure "every student in New Mexico" has access to high-speed internet in coming years.

The state also hopes to greatly increase participation in extended learning time programs like K-5 Plus, which have seen waning interest from school districts through the pandemic even as lawmakers supported the program with millions of dollars.

The draft plan was published months after state officials said it would be made available for public comment ahead of the February legislative session. A delay in its release drew criticism from Yazzie/Martinez plaintiffs attorneys and tribal leaders.

"We're pleased there's a plan to respond to, and we are still reviewing it," New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty's Education Director Melissa Candelaria, who represents Yazzie/Martinez plaintiffs, wrote in an email Tuesday.

She added: "However, it's clear that it still lacks the critical elements we have been asking for on a statewide level: concrete goals, action steps, estimated funding levels, timelines, responsible parties, and estimated staffing needs. Only the state can calculate these."

The plan details past investments the state has made in an attempt to satisfy the ruling, including recent educator pay raises, the establishment of several new equity councils and massive expansions in at-risk funding.

It also lists out future endeavors, including a plan to study the state's Family Income Index funding pilot for schools with high numbers of low-income students and establish a "Martinez/Yazzie Response Team" to oversee at-risk programming.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office contracted with retired Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent and former Public Education Secretary Veronica García for more than $54,000 to draft a comprehensive five-year plan, which she said she submitted to the state in October.

In a phone interview Tuesday, García said the plan had been revised since she submitted it, adding she hadn't had a chance to review the version the state published.

García, who was a plaintiff in the case, said addressing the ruling is "not a short-term endeavor" and said state investments like extended learning time programming won't take root immediately.

"When we look at what's been done in the aggregate, there's a significant amount of work and investment that has been made," she said. "But without a comprehensive plan, it's difficult to be able to see it all."

In 2020, District Judge Matthew Wilson denied a request by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to dismiss the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit. Wilson ruled in 2021 that many of the vulnerable students weren't being provided computers and Internet sufficient for them to participate in remote learning, despite efforts by education officials to deploy Wi-Fi hot spots and secure laptops for many students.

More recently, Wilson extended the discovery period on the case after the state requested a dismissal of plaintiff requests for more data regarding topics like preschool population, high school graduate remediation rates and teacher education programs, claiming it had already provided more than 60,000 pages of documents.

"This draft document records three years of work getting us on course and sets specific targets for what remains to be done," Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said in a news release Monday. "It's a blueprint for a new approach to education going forward, and we encourage all New Mexicans to review this and tell us how we can make the final version even better."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

©2022 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.