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Finally, a win-win for New Mexico

August 6, 2018

The headline in the July 21 Albuquerque Journal read, “NM loses education lawsuit.” That’s one way to look at it. Another way is to say: “Finally, a win-win for NM!”

The recent ruling by state District Judge Sarah Singleton on the suits filed on behalf of Hispano and Native American students is huge (“School funding decision a win for kids,” Our View, July 24). African-Americans’ plight can be included in this picture of failure that has gone on for generations. The failure of schools and the government to address this crisis has touched every New Mexican. The state’s dubious distinction of being among the poorest, with the most hunger and with the worst schools in the country say it all.

Background: There were two suits that were combined and known as the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico. One was brought by the Latino Education Task Force and asked the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, to represent the interests of Latino students, who make up 65 percent of all students. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty represented the Native American community.

Singleton directed both the governor and lawmakers to follow existing laws, provide “sufficient education” and institute programs to properly educate these communities that make up 77 percent of all students.

Myths and misleading numbers have clouded New Mexico’s education reality. One myth is that we’re throwing money at education. Another falsely touts highly inflated graduation rates of 71 percent.

The fact is that 40 years ago, Democratic New Mexico Gov. Jerry Apodaca’s education budget made up 55 percent of the state budget. Today, it’s 44 percent. How does that make sense today? And the official graduation rates only count four years of school instead of 12. The saying that “Figures don’t lie, but liars do figure” aptly applies here.

The reality is that we are failing to graduate more than half of our culturally distinct populations by not providing them the skills they need to earn a career and a livable wage. The education of Hispanos, Native Americans and African-Americans is in a state of crisis; state leaders have pointed this out for decades to no avail. The challenge is to find out how to educate a culturally distinct student population that makes up three-quarters of our state and will continue to grow for generations to come. This is New Mexico’s imperative — our future workforce.

Hopefully, the next governor will not fight the ruling. This would doom all New Mexicans to ongoing poverty, continuing health disparities, the largest percentage of working poor and a lower quality of life for everyone. Both branches of government and all political parties are responsible for this shameful condition.

The question is what to do now that there will be the money to do it. The New Mexico Education Action Alliance is a nonpartisan group dedicated to the complete elimination of the achievement gap. Dr. José Armas, a leader in this alliance, and the Latino Education Task Force that enlisted MALDEF to file suit says that before a cent is spent, an inclusive, comprehensive plan that includes all stakeholders, education, business, unions, government and the community be created. He says, “We have lots of good ideas out there, but good ideas are not a plan. We need a comprehensive plan to address our ‘new reality’ in New Mexico. This is our opportunity to do it right this time.”

This landmark ruling ensures that a focus of attention finally will be given to our culturally distinct student populations; they will receive an education, find a job with livable wages and improve the quality of life for everyone. New Mexico is the largest minority-majority state. The changes created to successfully educate culturally distinct communities will be a model for the rest of the country.

We can say: “Let’s educate low-income, at-risk, limited-English, disadvantaged kids.” Or, we can acknowledge the new reality and say: “Let’s finally educate our Latino, Native American and African-American children.”

Eric P. Serna is an attorney and former national chairman of the MALDEF board.

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