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Advocates propose fixes for education in New Mexico

September 19, 2018

A coalition of educators, tribal leaders, administrators and advocates say they have come up with an ambitious — and workable — plan to improve the state’s public education system for “at-risk” students.

What they didn’t come up with, however, is a price tag.

The plan, released by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty in Albuquerque on Monday, calls for an expansion of early childhood education programs, extending a summer learning program called K-3 Plus to K-5 Plus, ensuring all New Mexico educators are endorsed to teach English-language learners and reducing classroom sizes so there is a smaller student-to-teacher ratio.

The report’s leaders say their efforts meet the requirements of a landmark July court decision in which a state district judge ruled the state must devise a plan by mid-April to provide more resources to students who are impoverished, need special education services or are English-language learners.

For the most part, the 24-page report, which came out of a Friday meeting of some 100 education advocates in Albuquerque, does not price out all the recommendations.

“It’s up to the Legislature and analysts to cost this out and figure out how to raise that revenue and sustain it over time,” said Lauren Winkler , a lawyer for the Center on Law and Poverty.

The state recently announced it projects a $1.2 billion surplus, provided mostly by revenues derived from oil and natural gas production. That news, coupled with the ruling issued by First Judicial Court Judge Sarah Singleton, is seen as a chance to finally improve the lot of public students in New Mexico — a state that usually ranks near or at the bottom of any national study of public education outcomes.

“This ruling has given us the opportunity to take a hard look at the public school system and really transform it,” said Winkler. “Education policy tends to be made up of little fixes here and there, but this ruling gives us the chance to think bigger than that and really study what our kids need and then to provide it for them.”

The report cites specific findings issued by Singleton and suggests both specific and broad remedies to address those issues. For example, in response to Singleton’s finding that education funding has dropped since the 2008 recession, the report recommends the state put more money in New Mexico’s per-student funding formula.

Singleton also said the state’s existing pre-K programs are not always accessible for those at-risk students. The center’s report suggests passing legislation expanding pre-K “to full capacity given current infrastructure and workforce.”

And in response to Singleton’s finding that the state Public Education Department lacks sufficient monitoring devices to determine whether English-language learners are receiving “adequate” help, the report supports the hiring of more bilingual experts and educators, plus a requirement that all of the state’s 21,000-plus teachers earn bilingual endorsements, an effort that will cost money and take time.

Money does factor into the report’s recommendation that the state increase base salaries for teachers: $45,000 for beginning Tier 1 educators, $55,000 for mid-level Tier 2 teachers and $65,000 for more experienced Tier 3 educators.

The Albuquerque-based New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty is one of two advocacy entities — along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund — to represent families and school districts in the legal case, known as Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. That lawsuit, launched in 2014, questioned whether New Mexico was providing enough resources for its children, particularly those considered at risk.

Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration has signaled its intent to appeal Singleton’s ruling, which could drag the case out for several more years.

But the plaintiffs and their supporters clearly see a chance to benefit from Singleton’s decision, since a new governor will take office in January. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham said last week during a public debate with Republican challenger Steve Pearce that if she is elected she will “embrace” Singleton’s decision. She had previously said she would stop any appeal process. Pearce said that if he becomes governor, “I will do everything in my power to enforce the judge’s decision.” He said nothing about the appeal, however.

A spokeswoman for the Center on Law and Poverty said it sent the report to the media and the heads of the Legislative Finance Committee and Legislative Education Study Committee but not to the Public Education Department nor any state lawmakers.

Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee, said he did receive the report Monday evening but had not yet reviewed it.

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