Yazzie/Martinez attorneys reward Legislature’s schooling strikes however nonetheless await state’s plan | Training

New Mexico lawmakers approved measures this month pumping hundreds of millions of dollars into raising teacher pay to mitigate what the state Public Education Department has called an educator workforce crisis.

The increases, a high priority for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during the recent legislative session, also were lauded by attorneys representing plaintiffs in the landmark education lawsuit, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico.

The investments will help fulfill a judge’s 2018 ruling in the case requiring the state to adequately fund public schools to ensure they can provide sufficient education to certain groups of at-risk students: Native American youth, students with disabilities, low-income kids and English – Language learners — a large swath of the state’s public school population.

While education advocates didn’t secure all the funding they had hoped for in this year’s 30-day session, they said smaller appropriations awaiting the governor’s signature, many overshadowed by the hefty teacher raises, also will address some long-running problems identified in the lawsuit.

  • $15.5 million to expand paid residency programs for people training to be teachers.
  • $1.25 million in pay parity for indigenous language and culture teachers.
  • $11.5 million for teacher literacy training.
  • $3 million to boost community school programs.
  • $45 million for a pilot K-12 Plus program, which includes $2 million specifically allocated for tribal education departments.

Gwen Perea Warniment, deputy secretary of the Public Education Department, cited a measure ensuring Native American language and culture teachers earn the same pay as teachers in Level 1 of the state’s three-tier licensing system. Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, introduced the bill as part of a suite of legislation aimed at improving education for Native students.

“How are you getting at those most closely impacted by the issue?” Warning said. “In that way, I would say there’s some pretty significant investments in educators.”

Lente said the pay parity initiative is “at the heart” of the Tribal Remedy Framework, a plan developed by tribal communities and education experts that calls for funds to be allocated directly to tribes for community-based education support, such as libraries, higher education Programs and initiatives to build the Native teacher workforce.

The $35 million investment in the framework includes a boost in the Indian Education Fund, which provides money for tribal education departments and other schools providing Indigenous language and cultural instruction. Lawmakers tripled the amount for the Indian Education Fund in fiscal year 2023 to $15 million from $5 million.

Lente said the work is not done. He and others said they hope to see an overhaul of how distributions from the Indian Education Fund are made. Under the current system, which requires grant applications, communities face delays, he said.

“It creates an environment where it’s almost as if we’re setting those tribal education departments up to fail,” Lente said.

One of the largest allocations will fund a new pilot program called K-12 Plus, which expands the existing K-5 Plus summer program for students in grades K-5 to kids in all grade levels. Districts may apply for funds to offer enrichment programs for students, with a goal of developing partnerships with local businesses and organizations to provide learning opportunities.

Rural and largely Native American districts will be prioritized for the pilot program.

Warning hopes K-12 Plus will help close gaps in opportunities for students from low-income households.

“High-income families have the ability to provide their children [with] museums, travel, all of those things,” Warning said. “Those really support brain growth and development. There’s a direct correlation between those activities and extra brain growth.”

Like Lente, Warning said there is still more work to be done. In the next legislative session, she hopes to see greater investments in school-based health centers. A bill that would have allocated $4 million more for Medicaid reimbursements for schools died this year.

Recently appointed Special Education Ombud Michelle Tregembo said she hopes to secure more funding in the future for her office, which was established by the Legislature in 2021. Tregembo provides assistance to families statewide navigating special education programs.

There’s a high demand for her help. In the more than 50 days since she’s taken office, she’s received about 48 calls from families, she said.

Melissa Candelaria, an attorney with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty who represents the Yazzie plaintiffs in the education lawsuit, applauded investments in teacher pay and pay parity for tribal language teachers.

But, she said, it’s hard to tell how new investments will improve the education system without a long-awaited state plan for addressing the lawsuit. Plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez case are seeking a plan with concrete steps, estimated funding levels, a timeline and estimations of staffing needs, she said. Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus initially said such a plan would be ready for public review in November, but that never happened.

“In the absence of a state comprehensive education plan, there really is no strategy that’s targeted to meet the judge’s findings directly,” Candelaria said.

Warning said the education plan will be released to the public soon; Lente and Tregembo said they’ve seen drafts of it in recent months.

Meanwhile, the state and plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez case are still litigating the suit.

Candelaria said plaintiffs are seeking more data from the state to determine how the terms of the ruling have been satisfied.

In May, First Judicial District Judge Matthew Wilson will host a hearing on whether the state must hand over more information, ranging from the number of school-based health centers to specific categories of teacher vacancies.

“It’s been nearly four years and four legislative sessions,” Candelaria said. “And the state is far from meeting the needs of our students and far from the complete transformation of the education system that’s ordered by the court.”


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