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Education Boss: Judge's Ruling Devalues Progress In NM

Hannah Colton / KUNM

New Mexico’s Public Education Department is planning to appeal a court ruling last month that found the state violated the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide an adequate education. Judge Sarah Singleton’s decision doesn’t tell the department exactly what changes to make but says it must do better by its low-income students, Native American students, those with disabilities and English-language learners.

Education Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski talked to KUNM about the judge's ruling, which he says overlooks significant gains in student achievement since 2015.

Extended interview with Education Secretary-Designate Christopher Ruszkowski

RUSZKOWSKI: We’ve made a lot of progress in the past couple of years. When you look at districts that have made double-digit gains—like Gallup, where 40 percent of our Native American kids go to school; like Farmington, like Hobbs, like Gadsden—and I think it’s hard sometimes for the public, and for your listeners, to understand just how significant that progress is.

KUNM: The judge did, in her ruling, talk about the progress that’s been made, but ultimately she ended up writing that those “nominal” gains were not enough to excuse the state from liability for failing to meet those constitutional rights. And this is a case about discrimination, right? So what do you say to the fact that certain students are getting the short end of the stick? I mean that’s the crux of this case.

RUSZKOWSKI: Yeah, so let me just say first and foremost, I think that the judge and the public and those that are calling the gains that have been made from 2015 until now "nominal" are really off the mark. That does not mean that we don’t need to focus on equity in our funding formula. That doesn’t mean that kids don’t have a right to not just textbooks and technology and some of the things the judge talked about, but also a right to literacy and a right to numeracy. And that’s why we’ve focused so much on early literacy, for example, over the last five years.

KUNM: Do you just outright reject the judge’s determination in this case? Or specifically what did she get wrong?

RUSZKOWSKI: The judge makes a very causal argument between money and outcomes. I was with our superintendents last week, and I said, “If we provide more money, can you guarantee better outcomes?” And not one of our 89 superintendents raised their hand, because it’s just a little more complicated than that. It’s not as simple as a one-to-one relationship that more money will automatically lead to more outcomes. That there certainly needs to be other policies, practices, and mindsets built around that, that it’s just not quite that simple.

KUNM: Right, and the judge was never making the argument that more money, in and of itself, would improve the education. She wrote in her ruling that the additional money should be spent on programs that target those at-risk student populations.

Judge Singleton also spends a lot of time talking about the need for more accountability systems. We heard testimony that PED failed to keep track of English-language learner programs, failed to develop the kind of relationships with tribes required by the Indian Education Act, and failed to oversee the development of culturally relevant materials. So my question is, how can PED do better in these areas that really require outreach and relationship building?

RUSZKOWSKI: Yeah, so first, the English language proficiency of our English-language learners will now be a part of school grades, for the first time, in the 2018-19 school year. Second, we’ve now moved from just twice a year government-to-government meetings to monthly conference calls with the Indian Education Council.

And then the third piece: as we have, as a PED, gotten more involved in holding people accountable for the usage of those dollars, we’ve encountered massive resistance from districts, from charters, and from stakeholders. So there is some tension there, with the idea of local control brushing up against the idea of PED oversight into all things happening in our schools.

Let’s say we do put more money into the system over the next several years. How are we going to measure progress? When the same folks who are asking for more resources are also, often, asking to get rid of the core ways we’ve measured student progress over the last few years, that is deeply problematic.

KUNM: You still have about six months in office here. Is there anything you heard in testimony in this case, or read in the judge’s ruling, that you want to be sure to take care of in the time you have left?

Yeah, there is a lot of momentum we want to build upon. I’d put Pre-K in that category. I’d put meaningful teacher quality in that category.

I deeply believe there is a path forward for New Mexico. The goal is for us to come together in a bipartisan way, but we have to embrace both money and measurement — not just money without measurement — and both rigor and relevance. It’s not an either/or. It’s a both/and.


The Public Education Department has not yet filed a legal appeal. According to the court decision, they have until late August to do so. 


Correction: Christopher Ruszkowski is the education secretary-designate. He was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez but has not been confirmed by the Legislature. 


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.

Hannah served as news director at KUNM and reported on education, Albuquerque politics, and anything public health-related. She died in November 2020.
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