NM Attorney General seeks control over state response to Yazzie-Martinez

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Wilhelmina Yazzie speaks at the Roundhouse at the start of the 2019 legislative session. Credit / Anthony Jackson New Mexico In Depth

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez wants to take over the state’s “slow progress” in reforming public education to ensure all children are sufficiently educated as required by a landmark 2018 court ruling. The judge in that lawsuit found the state had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learners, disabled and low-income children. 

“There is frustration with the lack of progress over the past five years,” Torrez told New Mexico In Depth on Friday. “We’ve informed the governor’s office that we intend to resume control over the Yazzie-Martinez litigation.” 

Since the 2018 ruling, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has resisted efforts for deep reforms to public education sought by plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a coalition of advocacy organizations pushing for changes. In 2020, it asked a state judge to end court oversight of the case, saying the state had fully complied with the 2018 ruling. The judge denied that request, however, saying oversight should stay in place until long-term reforms are adopted.

Caroline Sweeney, spokesperson for Lujan Grisham, defended her administration’s work to resolve the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, pointing to significantly increased public school funding, the creation of new state agencies focused on special and early education, and increasing required instructional hours. Sweeney suggested that Torrez should focus on holding local school districts accountable. 

“We need to find a way to more directly hold school boards and school districts accountable for fully implementing the critical investments this administration has made over the last four years,” Sweeney wrote in an email. “The attorney general’s office has the power to do just that.”

According to Torrez’s director of communications Lauren Rodriguez, the Attorney General has broad statutory authority to control litigation in cases like Yazzie/Martinez where the state or an officer of the state is sued in their official capacity. This authority does not require approval from the governor or any other state agency, she said.

“We are working with several stakeholders and hoping to accelerate satisfying the terms of the judgment,” she said in an email. 

Torrez said he wants to take the lead from the Lujan Grisham administration on getting state agencies, the tribes, education experts, and plaintiffs together to hammer out concrete goals and timelines to comply with the ruling.

“Of course, that depends on the willingness of everyone to take a fresh look at what the judge’s order actually requires us to do and what resources are going to be necessary to achieve those goals,” he said. “We hope to have another round of conversations both with the administration and the Yazzie-Martinez plaintiffs.”

The AG’s office was involved in the state’s early response to the 2014 Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. 

But since the July 2018 ruling by Judge Sarah Singleton, the state Public Education Department (PED) has taken the lead on the state’s efforts to comply with the ruling. In May of 2022, four years after the ruling, it released a draft action plan that details what it has already done and describes possible future steps, but it has yet to release a final version. PED did not say Tuesday when the final plan would be released. 

“In the five years since the ruling – a third of a child’s entire grade school experience – we’re still not seeing the progress we need for the students who need it most,” Melissa Candelaria of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty wrote in an email Tuesday. The center along with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) sued the state on behalf of several parents and a handful of school districts around the state. “For years the state has wasted resources on a legal defense that’s protecting the current system, instead of deeply examining and getting to the root of the problems to fix things.”

Torrez met last week with the All Pueblo Council of Governors to discuss the state’s response to the ruling, and will also consult the Navajo Nation and the state’s two Apache nations, he said. On Tuesday, the council publicly welcomed Torrez’s attempted takeover of the case.

“The Attorney General has committed to collaborating with tribal educators and education specialists in crafting a solution-focused framework, encompassing the plaintiff’s perspective, along with the necessary resources that will hopefully bring an end to the litigation,” the All Pueblo Council of Governors said in a press release.

The state’s 23 federally recognized tribes have released a Tribal Remedy Framework for reforming the state’s education system to comply with the ruling, but proponents like Regis Pecos, co-director of the Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School and former governor of Cochiti Pueblo, have voiced discontent with the state’s slow response.

Singleton’s scathing Yazzie-Martinez ruling was a watershed moment in the history of public education in New Mexico. Citing the state’s low reading and math proficiency rates and abysmal graduation rate – at 70%, then the lowest in the country – Singleton ruled that the state’s public education system had violated students’ constitutional right to an adequate education that prepares them for college or a career. 

She found that PED had failed to ensure that all students receive the services they need to succeed, including quality pre-kindergarten, language, and culture coursework, social services, small class sizes and adequate funding to retain and train teachers. 

“We have not had a conversation with the Attorney General at this point and we welcome one so that we can share with him all the work the Department has been doing in service of our Martinez-Yazzie student groups,” PED Secretary Arsenio Romero said in an email Tuesday. 

This story has been updated to include a statement from Lujan Grisham spokesperson Caroline Sweeney received after New Mexico In Depth published the story.

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