In New Mexico, families spent years helping to lead a fight for equity in the state’s public schools – home to one of the widest equity gaps in the country. In 2018, they won an historic court victory and remain committed to full success because work remains.
Wilhelmina Yazzie did not expect to be a lead plaintiff in a landmark public education lawsuit against the state of New Mexico. She remembers thinking, “I’m just me. How am I going to make a difference?”
But as Yazzie considered whether to join the case, she thought of her mother – a single parent of four children and an educator on the Navajo Nation for more than 30 years. Her mother taught her to fight for her own children and every child in the community.
The lawsuit percolated for years before it was filed in 2014. It asserted that New Mexico was unconstitutionally failing to provide and fund critical programs and resources needed to prepare its most vulnerable public school students for college and careers.
Plaintiff parents told stories of children without textbooks or basic classroom supplies. New Mexico state data revealed a majority of students were failing to read or do math at grade level and a stark achievement gap between White students and students of color. A clear picture emerged of a state out of compliance with its own constitution and a public education system failing its Latinx and Native students, youth with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students.
Led primarily by Latinx and Native community organizations, the effort involved parents, educators and youth across New Mexico working with legal teams to shine a spotlight on one of the widest educational equity gaps in the country.
And in 2018, they won.
Niha’ałchíní bá – for Our Children
Wilhelmina Yazzie grew up on the Navajo Nation in the small rural community of Casamero Lake, New Mexico. She lived with her mother, siblings and grandparents, and spoke Navajo as her first language. Her mother, who taught in the public Head Start program, was her first teacher. Today, she lives at the edge of the Navajo Nation in Gallup, New Mexico, where she is a paralegal and tribal law advocate.
When Yazzie joined the lawsuit, her oldest son, Xavier, was in elementary school. By the time Judge Sarah Singleton finally ruled against the state, Xavier was in high school. Although Xavier was a straight-A student and on the honor roll, he performed below grade level on statewide tests. And Yazzie says she couldn’t get him into advanced classes that would prepare him for college.
The school sometimes lacked basic supplies or even enough books. Yazzie remembers sitting down to do homework with Xavier and her stepson, Reece.
“They would just sit there,” says Yazzie. “And I would ask, ‘What’s going on?’ They would say, ‘Well, we need the book, but we aren’t allowed to take it home, because there aren’t enough books.’”
Since the family lived in town with access to the Internet, Yazzie helped her sons do research online to compensate for the lack of books. But she thought of her relatives who still lived in Casamero Lake, some had just received electricity for the first time and certainly didn’t have access to the Internet. How would her nieces and nephews succeed in school without access to books and online information?
When the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty – a nonprofit founded in 1996 to advance economic and social justice through education, advocacy and litigation – asked her to get involved in a lawsuit, Yazzie was hesitant.
“Growing up as a Native American, people don’t look at you like you’re important and don’t want to listen to you…it makes us think, ‘I’m not going to try, because we’re not going to be heard anyway.’” She pauses. “You read about all these different cases going on, and it’s hardly ever ruled in our favor.”
She sought advice from her mother. “It’s up to you, my little one,” her mother told her. “But children are sacred.”
So, Yazzie told herself, “Your mom did what she could. Now, it’s your turn.”
As the first to join the lawsuit, Yazzie became its lead plaintiff. Though she was unable to speak publicly until after the ruling, she worked in myriad ways on the case. Year after year, she attended case strategy meetings, kept a detailed record of her children’s educational experiences and supported other parents as they voiced their own concerns about the school system. As the trial drew nearer, Yazzie and other plaintiffs were questioned by opposing attorneys during long depositions.
“It’s for all of our children that we do this,” she says. “In Navajo, we say niha’ałchíní bá – for our children.”
Pushed Out of a System Meant to Educate Them
In 2012, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty was having conversations with the community, including Wilhelmina Yazzie and parents like her, about funding and curriculum deficits in the state’s public education system. At the same time, attorneys from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) were investigating school finance issues in New Mexico and on a listening tour across the state. In communities, MALDEF attorneys heard stories of students forced to share textbooks, a lack of school computers to prepare for standardized testing and virtually no multicultural education for a student body that is highly culturally diverse.
Statewide data showed serious gaps in educational equity and school funding. New Mexico has the lowest graduation rates in the country, and 70 percent of New Mexico students could not read or write at grade level, while 80 percent could not do math at grade level.
“We have some of the most abysmal scores in reading and math across the entire country, and it’s correlated to poverty in the state,” says Sireesha Manne, executive director of the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. “New Mexico does not put in the level of funding that other states do for children coming from low-income communities, in order to equalize the advantages that children from other households have.”
Separately and just weeks apart from one another in 2014, the Center and MALDEF filed lawsuits against the state – Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Martinez v. State of New Mexico, respectively. In January 2015, the court consolidated the two cases into Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico.
The 55-page complaint referenced a trove of data, including how only 15.5 percent of fourth grade students with disabilities reached proficiency in reading, and only 16.7 percent reached proficiency in math. Statewide standardized test scores showed an obvious achievement gap: “67 percent of White students scored ‘proficient’ or above in reading, only 45.9 percent of Latino students, 34.7 percent of Native American students, and 48.6 percent of African American students reached the same level.” Among New Mexico public school students who went to college, nearly 50 percent required remedial courses.
“By virtually any measure, the students who are most at-risk in New Mexico are languishing without the educational opportunities they need to achieve their full potential and instead are being pushed out of the very system meant to educate them,” according to the complaint.
When New Mexico adopted its state constitution in 1911, it included Article XII – the Education Clause – mandating that “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.”
Lawyers for Yazzie/Martinez argued the state was failing its constitutional duties and breeching various federal education laws, including the Further Bilingual Multicultural Education Act, the Hispanic Education Act and the Indian Education Act.
“This is not about a tinkering of the education system or a small fix or even an injection of money,” says MALDEF staff attorney Ernest Herrera. “This is about making the New Mexico education system into the system that it’s meant to be in the constitution.”
That includes providing culturally relevant education.
“And that doesn’t just mean an ethnic studies course,” Herrera says. “It means that teachers are actually learning who their students are, where they come from, what their culture is and what circumstances they come from – and to be able to treat those aspects of students’ backgrounds as assets.”
Take the Gallup McKinley County School District, where Wilhelmina Yazzie’s children attend school. The school district covers nearly 5,000 square miles, including the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo. According to the district’s website, 78.95 percent of students are Native American. However, Yazzie says there were no culture or language classes available for Native students. In history classes, entire tribal histories are distilled to small sections in textbooks.
For Yazzie, the lack of culturally relevant educational opportunities exists within a traumatic history – the near erasure of her people by colonizers and the devastating legacy of tens of thousands of Native children forced from their families to attend “assimilation” boarding schools. These boarding schools stripped students of their identities, required new Anglo American names, clothes and haircuts and forbid the use of Native languages.
Yazzie says she’s fortunate to have learned about her people from her grandparents. Her grandmother took her to ceremonies, told her creation stories while they herded sheep and taught her the Navajo language. Now that her own son is in high school, Yazzie says it’s hard to watch Native teenagers “struggling to find themselves” without any support from the school district.
“A lot of the kids don’t know their culture or who they really are,” says Yazzie. “And I think that plays a big role in being successful. If you know who you are and where you come from, it gives you a lot of motivation.”
Victory and a Call for Immediate Action
Two years after the cases were consolidated, there was an 8-week trial during the summer of 2017. The state fought the case to the tune of $5.9 million – taxpayer dollars that ironically could have funded educational programs and services.
A ruling did not come until the following summer. On July 20, 2018, Judge Singleton ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding the state had unconstitutionally and systematically discriminated against Native and Latinx students, youth with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students. The court issued an injunction that required the state to take immediate steps to remedy the situation.
Yazzie remembers getting an email with the ruling and then trying to download the 76-page order on her phone. By then, so many years had passed since the beginning of the lawsuit, and countless people and organizations had worked tirelessly and passionately on behalf of New Mexico’s children. Yazzie remembers feeling shocked.
“I kept reading it over and over, thinking, ‘What does this mean? Did we win?’ And then I was like, ‘I think we did!’”
To say that the ruling is significant is an understatement. It’s historic.
“The case is extremely comprehensive and was about way more than just funding,” New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty’s Manne says. “It was about issues of equity for students and the fundamental nature of the way education is provided to New Mexico students.”
Herrera agrees, saying that the state must finally reckon with its constitutional obligation to educate all of its children. That obligation includes retaining bilingual teachers, providing culturally relevant education, funding the resources necessary to close the achievement gap and preparing all students for a future beyond high school.
“I think having the court recognize these things as rights, and not just aspirational language, were really important steps,” Herrera says.
Creating a Coalition and Solutions
Before the 2018 ruling, parents, educators and youth attended a series of summits across the state about the public education system. Those gatherings evolved into a coalition called Transform Education New Mexico.
“We had all been living with the system for so long, and there was widespread consensus about the issues and what needed to be done to fix them,” Manne says. By the time of the ruling, the coalition had “a comprehensive road map of action to be taken by the state,” she adds.
For example, coupling extended learning programs with pre-kindergarten programs goes a long way toward closing the achievement gap for elementary students. Research also shows students in high performing schools have their social and health care needs met. While providing social workers and wellness centers might seem outside traditional education, such resources are critical for students overcoming social and economic barriers, according to Manne.
Judge Singleton gave the state until April 15, 2019 to make a long-term plan for providing a sufficient education for its public school students. But education advocates say the state hasn’t done enough. In October 2019, MALDEF filed a motion for post-judgment discovery, arguing the state has not complied with the 2018 order.
Separately, the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed a motion that asserted noncompliance by the state, asking that the state be ordered to “develop, implement, and fully fund a long-term plan that will meet the state’s constitutional mandate.”
Wilhelmina Yazzie has seen small improvements in her children’s schools, including a mailing from the school district about learning initiatives and a free copy of the language learning software Rosetta Stone Navajo for each Navajo family. But she’s still waiting for culturally relevant classes at her sons’ schools.
Still, she is motivated by how far they’ve come already, and plans to continue to hold New Mexico accountable for its constitutional obligations to children. When she thinks back on that summer day when she saw the ruling on her phone, she chokes up.
“It took me all the way back to the beginning when I had those doubts of never being heard, and always being put down on the last level, and not having the same equality as other people,” she says. “It just changed my whole perspective.”
Debbie Weingarten is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona and a fellow for Community Change. In 2019, she was a finalist for the James Beard Award for Investigative Reporting.. Follow her on Twitter at @cactuswrenwrite. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.