SANTA FE, N.M. — A lawsuit that could upend the way New Mexico’s public schools are funded went to trial Monday to resolve accusations that the state is failing to meet constitutional obligations to provide essential educational opportunities to all students.
Parents, school districts and advocacy groups say that New Mexico’s education system isn’t meeting its responsibilities for Native American students, low-income students and those learning English as a second language.
“These failings are costing students the opportunity to succeed,” said Marisa Bono, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, in opening statements to the court. “The state is pumping hundreds of thousands of students into the state economy who are wholly unprepared for college or career.”
Education officials under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez say spending is more than adequate, and that the state has added specialized programs to help struggling students while holding teachers and school leaders more accountable for students’ academic progress.
In opening statements Monday, an attorney for the state said high levels of poverty across New Mexico have a major impact on the results of student testing — something that won’t be addressed by funneling more money toward public schools.
“The evidence will show that additional spending will have virtually no effect on student test scores,” attorney Jeff Wechsler said. “The defendants cannot show that spending more will impact them in any meaningful way.”
Courts in several states are being called upon to shore up funding for public schools, amid frustration with elected officials over state budget priorities and the quality of education.
The plaintiffs called on Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica Garcia — a former state public education secretary — to testify about what she described as shockingly low levels of proficiency in math and reading among graduating students.
Garcia noted that many schools are not included in new programs that intercede at an early age by expanding pre-school to 4-year-olds and lengthening the school day and school year through third grade. She faulted the overall level of state funding for public schools, as well as limited funds for programs tailored toward the students from low-income households where English is not the primary language.
The New Mexico case merges two lawsuits brought against the state on behalf of parents of public school students, from metropolitan Albuquerque to rural Zuni Pueblo, with seven school districts also joining the lawsuit. They were being represented by attorneys with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The plaintiffs argue that New Mexico does not equitably provide enough funding or enrichment opportunities to all students, despite constitutional guarantees to a free, uniform and sufficient public school system for all school-age children. Attorneys assembled state testing data to show that the majority of Native American students fail to meet grade-level proficiency in math and reading.
In a pre-trial ruling, Judge Sarah Singleton said the plaintiffs will have to do more than showcase abysmal test scores to prove that the state is violating constitutional guarantees to sufficient funding.
Plaintiffs of the lawsuit say public schools are underfunded by hundreds of millions of dollars each year. As they struggle with some of the nation’s highest childhood poverty rates, New Mexico’s school districts rely mostly on state funding for educational programs with some federal aid.
The lawsuit threatened to wrest control of public school funding away from the Legislature and New Mexico Public Education Department, over objections from fiscally conservative lawmakers and the governor.
Criticism of New Mexico’s education system has spanned the tenures of governors from both sides of the political aisle.
A state budget crisis has added a sense of urgency to the trial, as New Mexico grapples with a weak local economy and waning income from oil and natural gas.
To close a budget deficit for the budget year ending June 30, state spending on school programs was trimmed by 1.5 percent, with additional reductions to district cash balances and funding for transportation and instructional materials.
In Oklahoma, another energy-dependent state, budget cuts have prompted nearly 100 school districts to move to a four-day school week.
Lawmakers in Washington state have been struggling this year to satisfy a 2012 Supreme Court order to put more money toward basic education. In Arizona, a group of school districts and education associations sued the state in May, saying the Legislature has short-changed them by billions of dollars in required infrastructure spending during the past decade.