On Monday, lawyers packed into Judge Sarah Singleton's courtroom in the First Judicial District Court in Santa Fe offered a preview of what could be a decisive case: whether the state of New Mexico is violating its constitutional duty to provide a quality education for all children in the state.
Plaintiffs include the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who filed several motions for summary judgement on behalf of a constellation of school districts, including Gallup, Rio Rancho, Santa Fe, Cuba, Moriarty/Edgewood and Lake Arthur, as well as parents and public school children from Española, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Zuni and others.
In the pre-trial hearing, counsel for the plaintiff argued that Singleton should make a summary judgment ruling that the state is failing to offer an equal education to three groups of students—low-income, English language learners and Native American—based on a litany of educational measures indicating that students are not grade-level proficient in subjects like reading and mathematics.
Plaintiff counsel Christopher Sanchez argued that data measuring student achievement on such measures is so low that it assumes the education system is broken and therefore that the state is reneging its obligations. In their written motion, plaintiffs cite the poor test scores of these three groups of students on New Mexico’s standards based assessment between 2007 and 2014 as evidence of a constitutional violation.
While Singleton was swayed that various data showed New Mexico’s students face serious challenges, she appeared skeptical of Sanchez’ argument that a causal link between the state’s handling of public education and poor test scores could be assumed.
“I can’t think of any constitutional outcome that has that kind of analysis,” Singleton told Sanchez.
It’s this question of causation—whether students’ low achievement is a direct result of the state’s negligence in regards to education—that the defense raised a number of times throughout the hearing to sow doubts about its culpability.
Counsel for the defense Nicci Warr noted to the court that one of the plaintiff’s own witnesses had previously testified that even if the state invested the $1 billion they believed was necessary to properly fund the education system, positive educational outcomes couldn’t be guaranteed.
In a later response to the plaintiff’s motion for a summary judgment on educational outcomes specifically for Native students, defense counsel Stephen Hamilton argued that students’ receptiveness to learning was significant.
“The simple fact is that all a school system can do is provide students the opportunity to learn,” Hamilton said. He added that students who are minorities, English language learners, and economically disadvantaged were not as receptive to education as others, and for this reason had lower rates of proficiency across the country.
For Mark Fine, the plaintiff’s counsel for Native American children, that sort of reasoning sounded uncomfortably similar to the “separate but equal” doctrine upheld in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson US Supreme Court decision. He cited a portion of the defense's written motion where the state places some blame on Native students’ low achievement on their “remote, economically stressful life.”
“This is morally irresponsible that the state would communicate to Native children that they’re in such a poor state of affairs that [it] can’t be expected to educate them sufficiently,” Fine said.
Edward Tabet-Cubero, the executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, echoed Fine’s sentiment.
“We cannot believe the State's attorneys just argued that New Mexico cannot compete academically because of our ‘majority-minority’ status with so many Hispanics and Native Americans,” he said in a statement.
While Singleton ruled in favor of some of the plaintiff’s motions, she struck down their two motions for summary judgment. That means the case is headed for trial, which will begin on June 12 and extend into early August.