A state court ruled Friday that New Mexico’s education system fails to provide an adequate education to at-risk students, as required by the state’s constitution. In her ruling, Judge Sarah Singleton outlined the harm done to economically disadvantaged students, Native American students, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.
KUNM's Hannah Colton spoke with staff attorney Ernest Herrera of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who’s been working the case for years.
HERRERA: Some of the reasons the court gave for why at-risk students are not receiving a sufficient education are, for example, with teachers: [New Mexico's] teacher evaluation system is tied only to test scores and not to the programming that’s actually appropriate for students who are English Language Learners or students who are Native Americans or Latinos.
Another thing is, the state doesn’t know what exactly districts are implementing in terms of English language development. Students who are English Language Learners compose nearly 15 percent of students in New Mexico, and they have a right to an education just like any other student, and in many cases, in many districts, that’s not happening.
KUNM: Going back to the issue of the teacher evaluation system... the judge spent a good bit of time criticizing that system, but how does it disproportionately affect Native American, low-income, and English Language Learning students?
HERRERA: I can answer this from two angles. From the teacher angle, there’s a fear that teachers can’t teach what students actually need, and instead are having to teach to the test. So teachers who choose to work with students who are at-risk get punished more in their evaluation scores.
From the student angle, students who are at schools where most of their peers are at-risk are prone to losing teachers because teachers are afraid of getting a bad score and getting kicked out so they’ll say, ‘you know what, I’m gonna go to a school where this is not as much of a challenge.’ Or ‘I’m going to leave education altogether.’
We heard testimony from teachers that that was the case, but even more from principals and superintendents, who say they’re bleeding teachers, in part because of this [teacher evaluation] system.
KUNM: New Mexico has a formula that determines how much money a school district gets per student. What did Judge Singleton have to say about how that funding formula is serving at-risk students?
HERRERA: That formula is not up to par. That is something that has existed in our state law for a while, but it hasn’t been tweaked to match up with the realities and needs of today.
What that means going forward is that – through this case, and looking forward – there’s not just one single amount or injection of money that the state needs to put toward education. This is about making sure the system that distributes these funds focuses on those students who need it most.
KUNM: This particular legal action has already been underway for more than four years. So, this decision from the district court, is it just going to get tied up in the courts for more years to come? When can we expect to see changes actually in classrooms in New Mexico?
HERRERA: We don’t know for sure. We don’t know whether the state will appeal, but we’re prepared to defend this win.
What we hope, what we ask state leaders, the governor, and the legislature to do, is to do what the court said, which is by April 15, 2019, put in place measures that would move us toward providing a sufficient and uniform education to all students in New Mexico.
Some community members have pointed out to us that because of the problems and challenges that this lawsuit has brought to light, we have seen changes at the district level – programs being implemented around multicultural education, districts speaking more with tribal leaders about curriculum that is culturally relevant – and we have seen the state already trying to change some things. But we would point out, and remind everyone, that that’s not enough. These small, temporary changes which have been brought forward before are not going to be enough, so we need to see more changes now.
Support for KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project comes from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the McCune Charitable Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation, and from KUNM listeners like you.