ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Advocates for New Mexico's vulnerable public school students said Monday the state has a chance at a new start as a district judge ordered education officials to reshape policies and school funding to meet constitutional responsibilities.
Attorneys with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and dozens of supporters gathered at a park near downtown Albuquerque to celebrate what they called a historic win for New Mexico's at-risk students.
The groups sued in 2014, accusing the state of failing to meeting constitutional obligations to provide a sufficient education for all students.
The case highlighted the plight of English-language learners, Native American youth and students from low-income families.
Attorneys used several years of data on the educational outcomes of students in New Mexico to build their case. Many of those outcomes — reading and math scores along with graduation rates and the need for remedial courses — were defined as dismal by Judge Sarah Singleton in the ruling issued Friday.
Criticism of New Mexico's education system has spanned governors from both sides of the aisle and has long troubled the state Legislature, which for decades has been dominated by Democrats. In 2008, a study of statewide education funding commissioned by lawmakers suggested New Mexico's system was underfunded by about $300 million.
Advocates on Monday acknowledged the persistent struggle but said they're hopeful the ruling will set the stage for solving systemic problems.
"Today is really about doing what we should have been doing all along. Today was about doing the right thing by our kids," said Veronica Garcia, former state education secretary and now head of the Santa Fe school district.
During her tenure as New Mexico's first cabinet secretary of education, Garcia said there was always a battle to win more funding for programming, with the argument being that schools needed to show more gains first. She said even then state leaders knew that schools were the first line of defense in mitigating poverty and that the school year needed to be extended along with access to prekindergarten programs.
Now, a greater percentage of the state's budget goes to the school system but the advocates argued at-risk students were still missing out.
Dozens of witnesses testified during a two-month trial. They talked about a shortage of teachers and textbooks among other problems.
"What we hope to get is not bells and whistles," Garcia said. "It's not fluff. It's just basic education."
The legal case incorporated two lawsuits that made similar claims about inadequacies within the education system. The complaints were brought by groups of parents from Espanola, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Zuni, Magdalena, Las Cruces and Gadsden. Several school districts also joined the case.
The state Public Education Department disputed the plaintiffs' claims, pointing to expanded prekindergarten programs, more emphasis on reading, truancy and dropout prevention efforts adopted in recent years as well as professional development programs for teachers and principals.
It wasn't immediately clear if the state would appeal.
The judge gave the state 60 days to create a plan and set an April 15 deadline for ensuring schools have the necessary resources to give at-risk students a sufficient education.
Republican Gov. Susana Martinez will finish her second term at the end of the year, meaning a new governor will work with the Democratic-controlled Legislature to make sure the state complies. Part of the debate is expected to revolve around tapping the state's Land Grant Permanent Fund to pay for early childhood education.
But money won't be the only answer, said Sandra Hernandez, a spokeswoman with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
"This is really about accountability and systemic issues," she said.