New Mexico judge: More education reform needed

Left to right: New Mexico State Representative Derrick Lente, Leadership Institute co-director Regis Pecos and Navajo Nation Jonathan Nez discuss the Yazzie/Martinez case in March 2020. (Photo by Derrick Lente, Facebook)

Aliyah Chavez

Updated: New Mexico courts will not dismiss landmark Yazzie/ Martinez education lawsuit

Aliyah Chavez
Indian Country Today

The state has not fulfilled the requirements of a 2018 ruling ordering substantial improvements to education for New Mexico children, a judge said Monday. 

First District Judge Matthew Wilson denied a motion to dismiss a landmark education lawsuit filed by Navajo and Hispanic and plaintiffs, saying the court will continue to oversee the case until the state makes long-term, "comprehensive educational reform that demonstrate substantial improvements of student outcomes."

Monday afternoon’s virtual court hearing marked the first major event in the Yazzie/Martinez suit since the 2018 ruling, in which a previous judge decided the state had violated the constitutional rights of its at-risk students in failing to provide them a sufficient education.

"The court affirmed what tribal leaders have said all along, that the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligations," Regis Pecos, Cochiti Pueblo, co-director of the Leadership Institute, said after the ruling. 

"If the initial decision was a landmark decision, I am hopeful that today's decision is the dawning of a new day and the first step in a long journey to see justice and equity for our children," Pecos said. 

Wilson's ruling acknowledged that immediate action was taken by the state to avoid "irreparable harm" to children's education after the 2018 ruling, but that alone is not enough.

"The defendants admit that the job is not done yet,"  Wilson said.  

The lawsuit began in 2014 when Wilhelmina Yazzie, Navajo, joined other families and school districts in litigation arguing New Mexico needed to do better for its students. The trial lasted two months.

(Related: I dream of a moonshot for education, too)

Many education advocates, families and policymakers felt this was a huge step in the right direction. They thought the case was closed after the ruling.

Then March came, and they learned the state filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. 

The state is now arguing it has met all of the orders required of it after increasing education funding and revising programs.

Not everyone agrees. The list of those in opposition includes every tribal nation in New Mexico and three Native professionals besides Yazzie who are leading the way to advocate for New Mexico’s children.

Following Wilson's initial ruling, Monday's hearing continued on a separate matter.

One of the attorneys to take the mic will be Preston Sanchez, an Indigenous justice attorney with the ACLU of New Mexico. He has been the only Native attorney working on the case since it began. He is from Jemez and Laguna Pueblos and Diné.

Preston Sanchez is the only Native attorney working on the Yazzie/ Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, a watershed case affecting New Mexico children. He is from Jemez and Laguna Pueblos and Diné. (Photo courtesy of Preston Sanchez)
Preston Sanchez is the only Native attorney working on the Yazzie/ Martinez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit, a watershed case affecting New Mexico children. He is from Jemez and Laguna Pueblos and Diné. (Photo courtesy of Preston Sanchez)

The case affects four main parties which consist of what the state classifies as “at-risk” students. These “at-risk” students include those who are Native, low-income, disabled and English language learners.

Sanchez will argue Monday that “not much, if anything,” has changed in working towards the successful outcomes of these students since 2018.

“The solution is pretty simple here,” Sanchez said. The state needs “to collaborate with education experts, tribal leaders, community members, and education stakeholders to develop a long-term comprehensive plan.”

The plan, Sanchez says, should include “step-by-step” details into how it will invest resources to address the discriminatory practices that fail students.

For at least eight consecutive years, New Mexico has performed in the lowest ranks in education, according to the 2020 Kids Count dataset. Nearly 26 percent of students in New Mexico don’t graduate on time.

And for Indian education, there is currently no Native representation in the state’s education department, even though the Indian Education Act requires it. In March 2018, former Assistant Secretary of Indian Education Latifah Phillips, Tohono O’odham Nation, issued a two page letter claiming she was forced to resign.

“It’s almost offensive that the state of New Mexico would assume that they can get out of it [its obligations] in two years given how much time and effort has been put into this [education reform] over generations.” Sanchez said.

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan-Grisham says she agrees education reform needs to happen in the state but believes policy needs to be shaped by experts and not courts.

“To be very clear, the governor has no opposition or disagreement with the original action and intent of the lawsuit,” Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Grisham told Indian Country Today.

“The intent of the motion to dismiss is not to disagree with the critically necessary rebuilding and restructuring of New Mexico's public education – it is to ensure that educational policy is set by education experts, not by court decree,” Sackett said.

Derrick Lente is a three-year state representative from Sandia Pueblo. He is one of six Native legislators out of the state's 112 total members.

A majority of the people he serves are from Native communities, consisting of seven pueblos, five Navajo Nation chapters and the Jicarilla Apache Nation.

Some of the stories he's heard recently: students teaching themselves because they do not have the ability to use online learning tools, completing hard-copy packets of homework, writing papers on their cell phones, teaching themselves calculus. 

Lente says the coronavirus has only made education issues worse for his constituents who were already struggling.

“For a student to have to self-teach themselves calculus in order to become college and career ready, it doesn’t serve them well,” Lente said. “It is truly not fair to them, their parents and their community … and it sets them up to fail.” 

Last year, Lente sponsored a bill that created a new section of the state’s Indian Education Act requiring school districts to provide “a needs assessment” ─ a tangible way to determine what kinds of support are needed to help Native students be successful. The bill was signed into law by the New Mexico Governor in 2019.

Lente says he has been immersed in “frank and honest” conversations with Grisham and members of her administration in an effort to reform education.

“And then I read the news [of the motion to dismiss the case] on social media,” Lente said. “It really left me blindsided.”

“This decision was made by the administration to the dismay of many of us in the Legislature,” Lente said. After contacting other colleagues, “they too were furious.”

As the news spread, Lente says he began receiving calls from constituents wondering why the state was taking this action.

So he stepped into action to share his thoughts.

Lente drafted a letter publicly opposing the state’s motion to dismiss the case. It was signed by 14 colleagues in the Legislature including the Speaker of the House. The letter was hand-delivered to the governor’s office.

In June, when the state was forced into an emergency special session, Lente and four other colleagues introduced House Memorial 1. It is a document hoping to rally the state’s entire Legislative body to publicly oppose the dismissing of the case.

The memorial didn’t end up being heard during the special session because “we were not ready to have that discussion publicly,” Lente said.

“If we are going to talk about racial equality, we should be able to state things boldly unafraid of the consequences or the politics of it all. We need to be able to stand and support our children’s education” Lente said.

Despite the actions made by Grisham to dismiss the case, Lente said he commends her proactive COVID-19 efforts that have “saved the lives of thousands of New Mexicans.” More than 50 percent of the state's coronavirus cases are from Native people.

Another key Native advocate is Jasmine Yepa, Jemez Pueblo, who has worked closely with Lente and Sanchez on this project.

The trio collectively hold law degrees from the University of New Mexico School of Law.

Yepa is a policy analyst at the Native American Budget and Policy Institute. She has given presentations to Native parents, teachers, principals and community members about the case to raise awareness.

Part of the findings of her research supplemented policy introduced into the state’s Legislature and will also be used for arguing Monday’s case.

“There’s a great sense of solidarity I feel whenever I’m working with them [Lente and Sanchez],” Yepa said. “We were those kids who went through the public education system. Thankfully we were able to find our callings to stand up for injustice.”

This work, Yepa says, is important to her because investing in a student’s education means more than getting them ready for college. It is getting them ready for whichever next step they will have.

Yepa cites that nearly all Pueblo communities appoint tribal leadership instead of electing them to office.

“Many young men in Pueblo communities will not have a choice in becoming a tribal leader,” Yepa said. “Governors of our pueblos are tasked with running whole governments. That includes caring for the health, environment and economic development of our people.”

“And so when we are failing to give our kids a sufficient education to take on those roles, it comes at the expense of the health and well being of an entire tribal community,” Yepa said.

Monday’s hearing will include arguments heard from the Yazzie and Martinez plaintiffs as well as the state’s attorneys.

It is possible that the judge could issue a ruling after hearing arguments Monday, though it is not likely, experts say. They expect the judge will take their time making a decision.

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Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today based in Phoenix. Follow her on Twitter: @aliyahjchavez or email her at achavez@indiancountrytoday.com

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