Answering Yazzie: What Does A Sufficient Education Look Like?

Questions over public education and how it's funded in New Mexico go back at least 400 years. Since then, questions of the equity and sufficiency of funding have come up a number of times. With the recent ruling in Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, another chapter is being written into this long story. Before delving into the implications of Yazzie, a brief history review is in order.

New Mexico's application for statehood in 1912 hinged in large part on dispelling notions of being too corrupt - and establishing a public education system. Before President Taft finally cajoled Congress into accepting New Mexico as part of the republic, the writers of the state constitution dedicated article XII to addressing public education:

A uniform system of free public schools sufficient for the education of, and open to, all the children of school age in the state shall be established and maintained. [N.M. Const. art. XII, § 1]

Whether the state fulfills this Constitutional commitment has been the question at the heart of several landmark cases. In the early 1970s, plaintiffs argued that education funding was imbalanced. District budgets relied too heavily on local property taxes, they argued, leaving rich districts with more and other communities with even less. So, as part of an agreement to avoid trial, the legislature passed the Public School Finance Act [N.M. Stat. § 22-8-1] in 1974.

This established what was, and still is, widely considered one of the most innovative and equitable state education funding formulas: New Mexico's state equalization guarantee, or SEG. SEG provides for differentiated funding dependent on a myriad of student-level factors including grade level, at-risk elements, special education, and more. SEG also provides budgetary discretion for school districts to encourage spending funds as local needs dictate.

Despite this, in 1999 a court ordered New Mexico to further “establish and implement a uniform funding system for capital improvements . . . and for correcting existing past inequities.” That case, Zuni School District v. State, is cited by large school districts in high-growth areas arguing for more facility funds and also by rural areas that don't think they get enough. We all have slightly different definitions of “fair and equitable.”

I share this timeline to situate the Yazzie decision within New Mexico's broader history and the long struggle for a more equitable and just public education system. These battles are also not unique to The Land of Enchantment. Recently there have been similar lawsuits in California and Michigan arguing that literacy is a fundamental and Constitutional right. The Brookings Institute explored the impact of these lawsuits and asked “How might districts and schools take positive actions to deter being found to have committed malpractice?”

In ruling on Yazzie, recently retired district court judge Sarah Singleton writes that the “vast majority of New Mexico’s at-risk children finish each school year without the basic literacy and math skills needed to pursue post-secondary education or a career.” This is one of the few things all sides of this case agree on: New Mexico's education system has long languished and needs drastic improvement. Where there's far less agreement is on the reasons why and the best way forward.

Judge Singleton gave the state until April 15 to identify more funds, though she left the door open on the amount and source of additional dollars. For a state that already spends 44 percent of annual appropriations on public schools, this is no small task. Some are applauding the decision. Others are skeptical of pouring money into a broken system. Already, the state has announced its intent to appeal the decision.

Regardless of how New Mexicans feel about the Yazzie decision, or how the pending appeal turns out, nothing will substantively change for students or teachers if we don't work in concert. Money alone isn't the answer, and programs without funding are toothless--even proven effective, homegrown ones such as K3 Plus and Teachers & Principals Pursuing Excellence.

NMKidsCAN, a locally founded and led nonprofit, recently shared a roadmap for the future of NM education centered on community, competition, performance, and pluralism. These four values are a great start, to which I add:

- Optimism: we must reinvest hope in who we are and what we are capable of, including difficult changes ahead;

- Determination: we are a steely, stubborn people. Let's apply those qualities on behalf of students and teachers instead of fighting proxy wars over proven ideas that aren't going anywhere, such as public charter schools. Let's work to improve what we have rather than undermining each other at every turn;

- Accountability: we deserve to hold ourselves accountable to ambitious goals. This is the harder, necessary road and one more and more educators call on;

- Innovation: public education has changed very little in the past 100 years and we all feel the effects as the world around us changes at a breakneck pace. We must develop and support new education models that work across the state. We need a public education system as diverse as the people of New Mexico; and

- Collaboration: none of this (Yazzie and additional funding included) means anything if we don't find ways to work together. This is hard work and requires integrity, humility, and a focus on the long run. Education gets divided up into barely distinguishable fiefdoms with each party claiming to know what's best for students, teachers, and schools. We all have important ideas and experiences to share, let's work together accordingly.

Much more must be done to reach all our students and improve the lives of hard-working educators. To get further we must take a both/and approach, not either/or. The stark reality is that without accountability as part of the equation, half of New Mexico will scoff at spending more money. Meanwhile, reaching for loftier goals does require strategic investment in our most precious natural resource, our students.

Education funds should directly target D and F schools; instead of scuttling our school grading system wholesale so we can bury our heads in the sand again. We can use additional dollars to further tailor PARCC questions to local needs, instead of turning our backs on accountability. A bigger education budget should fund more transportation, so families truly have school choice. More money could pay our highest-performing teachers to stay in the profession, move to the most challenging schools, and take on mentoring and leadership roles.

Yes, we can do it all. And we must. Yazzie is an opportunity to take what we know works and scale that up. Knowing what works, and what doesn’t, requires statewide data that tells us how students, teachers, and schools are performing. And those who can't see a way to work together and evolve forward should step aside for those of us willing and ready.