Years of frustration lie behind school lawsuit

Published Aug 29, 2018. Updated Sep 5, 2018 @ 4:49 pm

Tired of hearing ‘no,’ plaintiff says, taking NM to court was her only option

For Wilhelmina Yazzie, joining the groundbreaking lawsuit against New Mexico wasn’t an easy thing to do. It was the only thing to do.

The Navajo mother of three says she’s no different from the dozens of other parents who were party to Yazzie v. New Mexico, which declared the state’s public education system unconstitutional. By most accounts, she is no different from tens of thousands of New Mexico parents in general.

“I want the same things that every parent wants for their children,” the 39-year-old legal administrator said.

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Yazzie lives in Gallup, on the edge of the Navajo Nation, where schools in the Gallup-McKinley district lack everything from funding and qualified teachers to counselors, tutors, social workers and computers. They are wanting in advanced placement classes, fall flat in after-school programs, and in the main, fail to offer the language and culture programs, summer school, or other services that help children succeed.

One year, her son Xavier’s school, Jefferson Elementary, didn’t even have enough money to buy basic supplies.

“His teacher asked parents to bring in old socks to clean the dry-erase boards,” Yazzie recalled.

Another year, she discovered that Xavier — a straight-A student — wasn’t scoring at grade level on national achievement tests. When she asked school administrators for a tutor to help him catch up, she drew blank stares.

“It was like, “Your child is getting good grades. What more do you want?” she said.

At John F. Kennedy Middle School she was even more alarmed by what she saw. More accurately, what alarmed her was what she didn’t see: textbooks. Xavier didn’t bring his books home to study. The school didn’t allow it. There weren’t enough textbooks to go around, his teachers told her.

Yazzie doesn’t blame the teachers, however. She blames the leadership. She says Xavier, now 15, and her son Reece, 13, have a laptop and broadband at home, so they can use the internet to study. But large portions of the Navajo Nation don’t have computers or online access.

“And those students get zeroes on their homework because they have nothing to study with,” she said.

For years, the public schools failed to respond to her complaints.

“All we’ve heard is ‘Sorry we can’t do that or sorry we don’t have that or sorry we can’t give that to your children,'” she said. “But it’s not a good enough excuse.”

Those sentiments are front and center in what is being called one of the most significant education lawsuits in New Mexico history, a case filed in March 2014 and concluded July 20 in a blistering 54-page ruling from First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton. The judge declared the state’s public education system a “dismal failure” that violates students’ rights under the constitution to a sufficient education.

The suit is part of a decades-long national trend that’s seen coalitions of parents, children and school districts challenge their state’s public school systems. These cases argue that funds are distributed in arbitrary and inequitable ways, leaving at-risk students without the basic education they need to go to college, pursue a career, contribute to society, and succeed in the modern world.

School finance litigation has unfolded in more than 17 states in the past decade, where plaintiffs include low-income students, those who aren’t fluent in English and others who are at risk of academic failure. In New Mexico, at-risk children include Native Americans, English language learners, Hispanic-Latino students and students who have a disability.

Pursuing equality in court has its cost: New Mexico has already dedicated more than $4 million in legal fees to defend itself in the Yazzie lawsuit and in a second school-funding suit filed a month later. That amount of money is enough to cover the salaries of 93 teachers for a year, at the current average of $47,000 annually.

A better option is to have lawmakers enact reforms on their own, without involving a court, according to Maura McInerney, legal director of the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization that is representing plaintiffs in a landmark school-spending suit in Pennsylvania.

“The best way to reform the public education system is to have state legislation that equitably and properly distributes funds in the first place,” McInerney said.

However the reforms unfold, a funding increase is, in the long run, almost always beneficial, she added.   

“The New Mexico case will have a significant impact,” she predicted. “When you make a long-term investment in fair and equitable education, you make a very critical difference in the lives of children.”

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP), the legal advocacy group that represented the Yazzie plaintiffs, seconds that opinion. In the run-up to filing the lawsuit, the Albuquerque-based nonprofit gathered substantial evidence from parents, advocates, experts and educators that New Mexico’s method of allocating funds to schools violated the “education clause” of the state constitution as well as state statutes.

Finding plaintiffs wasn’t difficult, said Preston Sanchez, an NMCLP staff attorney, who traveled the state from Peñasco to Gadsden and beyond, to interview parents. “There have been so many people who have been negatively affected by the state’s poor public school system.

“But the case isn’t just about money. And it isn’t just about spending. It’s about educational opportunities. It’s about whether a program is being provided to English language learners. It’s about addressing students’ cultural differences and unique cultural needs.”

The plaintiffs’ argument was fortified and expanded when the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) filed a second spending suit, in April 2014. Martinez v. New Mexico, brought on behalf of more than 50 plaintiffs, argued that New Mexico’s K-12 system not only violated the constitution’s education clause, but also violated the state’s Indian Education Act, its Bilingual Multicultural Education Act and its guarantees of equality for bilingual Spanish speakers and children of Spanish descent. The two cases were consolidated, forming a single suit with plaintiffs from nearly all corners of the state, including 13 school districts.

“The state of New Mexico is failing its public school students and has failed them for so long that there now exists an entire generation of children in this state who do not possess the basic capabilities to meaningfully function in modern society,” the plaintiffs argued.

Singleton agreed, ruling that the state “is responsible for assuring that students receive an adequate education.”

The decision is personal validation for Yazzie, whose mother was a college graduate and a school teacher on the Navajo Nation for more than 30 years. Yazzie herself graduated from the University of New Mexico and recently passed the Navajo Tribal Bar Exam. All three of her siblings have college degrees.

A school system that lacks something as central to education as schoolbooks? The thought can’t help but rankle her.

Yazzie recalled how during her own school days she lugged home textbooks from Smith Lake Elementary School that essentially described Native Americans as savages. Some of her teachers sang the praises of Christopher Columbus. The school never had enough teachers, counselors, computers, classrooms or even school buses.

But at least it had books.

“The lawsuit is a great first step,” Yazzie said. She said it particularly honored the memory of her mother, who raised four children on the slim salary she received as a teacher at the Navajo Nation’s Head Start program and at an elementary school in Casamero Lake.

“When I heard the news that we won, I really couldn’t believe it. I looked up, and I said, ‘Mom, you know what? We did it.’”

Editor’s note: This article originally stated the Education Law Center represented plaintiffs in school-spending lawsuits in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Plaintiffs in the New Jersey suit were solely represented by the Newark-based Education Law Center. Plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania case are being represented by a separate Education Law Center, based in Philadelphia.

Top photo: Wilhelmina Yazzie and her son, Xavier, in front of Jefferson Elementary School in Gallup. Brandon N. Sanchez / Gallup Independent.

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