Document hints at solving New Mexico education inadequacies – Las Cruces Sun-News

SANTA FE – New Mexico education officials this month touted a plan to address an ongoing lawsuit over educational opportunities for Indigenous and low-income students as an accomplishment of the outgoing Education Secretary.

But a draft of the document obtained by The Associated Press shows that it offers few specifics for fixing systemic inequities in the state’s public school system.

The 100-page document outlines strategies to resolve a 2018 state court ruling that found New Mexico failed to provide “adequate” education for most students required under the state’s constitution.

In most cases, the draft reiterates the general goals of the state’s Public Education Department without laying out specific plans to solve problems identified in the ruling.

It prioritizes increasing access to high-speed internet, but does not suggest providing high-speed internet to all students or to all students unable to attend school in-person, which District Court Judge Matthew Wilson ordered this year.

The draft was presented to a summit of tribal leaders when they met last week with state government officials.

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The education department plans to release a full version of the proposal by Dec. 1, after getting additional feedback, the document states. That leaves about four weeks for the public to comment before legislation starts to be filed next year.

The final draft will likely drive policy discussions ahead of the 2022 legislative session where lawmakers will hash out the state’s education budget.

“The timing is driven by the need for giving the public time to weigh in before the (legislative) session,” said Public Education Department spokeswoman Carolyn Graham.

State Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat who sponsors much of the state House legislation supporting Indigenous issues, and other prominent Native American education advocates complained that they had not been given a copy of the document by state education officials.

Lente says feast days and other religious holidays in December will limit the public’s ability to participate.

He said they should release the document sooner so there is time for people to have input.

“It’s insulting to think that they expect the public who yes, education is absolutely a priority, but during the holiday season, to take time out of, out of their life, and out of their holiday,” Lente said, “on something like this that they’ve had all year to do.”

The draft focuses on what needs to be done to address the lawsuit, but not necessarily who will do it or how.

The 2018 ruling found the state offers second-rate education to marginalized groups, and hasn’t hired enough qualified teachers who can serve Indigenous students, English language learners or disabled children. It also found children in poverty were not receiving an adequate education.

The education department policy draft sets the goals of increasing teacher training and recruitment, driving down dropout rates and absenteeism, and increasing funding for ways to support students outside of class, from counseling to at-home internet and computers.

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One of the few specific recommendations in the report cites the need to increase pay for teachers who obtain Spanish bilingual certifications or Native American language and cultural certificates, as well as technical support and training for schools for absenteeism interventions. Boosting pay for those hard to fill positions would attract more candidates, the draft said.

While follow-up rulings from state court judge Wilson has set a specific standard for high-speed internet and required students to have access, the draft does not.

Former Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart has said that the state follows a federal standard that sets minimum upload and download speeds. The judge issued a higher standard, based on outcomes, saying that all students should be able to participate in a two-way video chat with their teacher

Wilson also ordered the education department to identify which students lack essential technology. The department has not released the data.

Education officials said more detailed recommendation items will be included in the version released to the public.

The state education department “is developing 90-day action plans that will include specific measurable actions as well as identifying the people responsible for those actions, the timelines, and the metrics for success,” Graham said.

The education department stressed that the draft is not the first effort taken at resolving the lawsuit.

Since the 2018 ruling, New Mexico changed the state education funding formula so that schools serving Indigenous areas would keep millions in federal funds instead of having it subtracted from their state funding. In response to the pandemic, the education department has funded the purchase of laptops for students stuck at home and paid for temporary internet access.

The lawsuit named Martinez-Yazzie for the Hispanic and Indigenous families who joined the lawsuit in 2014 during Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tried unsuccessfully to dismiss the lawsuit last year.

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Lawyers representing the plaintiffs have estimated in the past that the case covers about 80% of New Mexico’s K-12 students. They include Native American students, English Language learners, students with disabilities, and low-income students.

Because the closure of in-person schooling during the pandemic disproportionately impacted those types of students, it’s unlikely that the lawsuit will be dismissed any time soon.

Cedar Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.