- Associated Press - Monday, May 22, 2017

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A lawsuit alleging that New Mexico’s education system failed to meet its constitutional responsibilities is headed to trial after a state district judge on Monday denied requests for an early decision.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty said its main requests for summary judgment were denied so the court can consider the state’s response in greater depth.

The center and other advocates allege that New Mexico’s education system is failing to meet its constitutional responsibilities for Native American students, low-income students and those learning English as a second language.

Officials with Republican Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration have denied the allegations, saying that spending on education in New Mexico has expanded.

“Today’s rulings represent just one step along the road to June’s trial where the state will have to explain why it has failed to support all of our children’s education in ways that help them actually learn,” said Christopher Sanchez, attorney for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.

The case incorporates two lawsuits that make 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 from around the state also joined the case.

The plaintiffs argue that New Mexico has a constitutional obligation to provide children the support necessary to learn and succeed but that the state does not equitably provide enough funding or enrichment opportunities to all students.

Staff attorneys with the Center on Law and Poverty used several years of data on the educational outcomes of students in New Mexico to build their case, said Edward Tabet-Cubero, the center’s executive director.

“Just like most New Mexicans, we’re growing frustrated with seeing those outcomes and seeing our children show up last on pretty much every measure you can imagine,” he told reporters ahead of Monday’s hearing.

Tabet-Cubero said language in the New Mexico Constitution places the responsibility on state government to provide a free, uniform and sufficient public school system for all school-age children.

“At the most basic level, we’re saying for years the state has starved our education system,” he said.

The state Public Education Department disputes those claims, pointing to expanded pre-kindergarten programs, more emphasis on reading, truancy and dropout prevention efforts adopted in recent years as well as professional development programs for teachers and principals.

“Let’s be clear: These political activists are only suing because they want to preserve the status quo, and we are the only ones standing in their way,” agency spokeswoman Lida Alikhani said in a statement.

The Center on Law and Poverty filed its case in March 2014. The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed another case the following month, also alleging the state was violating the constitutional rights of economically disadvantaged students.

The criticism of New Mexico’s education system have spanned governors from both sides of the aisle and have long troubled the state Legislature, which for decades has been dominated by Democrats.

Lawmakers in 2008 commissioned a study to look at education funding across the state and the findings suggested New Mexico’s system was underfunded by about $300 million.

The advocates’ lawyers replicated that study using more recent data and say funding has now fallen behind by more than $600 million.

Some advocates have acknowledged that New Mexico is now grappling with a budget crisis, but they still want a judge to pressure the state to develop a plan to provide what they consider “appropriate support and programing for all of our students.”

Tabet-Cubero said that plan should include universal access to early-childhood education, extended learning opportunities after school and during the summer as well as programs to help offset the effects of poverty on learning, such as having more social workers in schools.

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