July 24, 2018
Press Release

In a major victory for New Mexico public school children, the district court, in a July 20 ruling, found that inadequate school funding violates the education article of New Mexico’s constitution, as well as violating the constitutional equal protection and due process rights of economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners and Native American students. 

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed Martinez v. State in 2014, on behalf of parents and students, to establish education as a fundamental right and ensure meaningful educational opportunities for all students, especially those who are economically disadvantaged, English language learners (ELL), Native American, and/or of Spanish-heritage. The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty filed a similar case, Yazzie v. State, also in 2014, and the trial court consolidated these cases. The trial team also included pro bono counsel Martin Estrada and his colleagues from Munger, Tolles & Olson in Los Angeles. The two- month trial before District Court Judge Sarah Singleton concluded in August 2017.

Adequacy Defined

Judge Singleton held that the Legislature, through various statutes, has defined what a constitutionally adequate education is for New Mexico students and, accordingly, relied on those statutory provisions to determine whether the state met its constitutional obligations. The court also established the burden of proof in a school funding case in the state, holding that the plaintiffs must prove a constitutional violation by a preponderance of the evidence.

Inadequate Inputs

Judge Singleton found that there was sufficient proof presented at trial of inadequate essential educational resources in New Mexico’s schools. The evidence demonstrated that schools across the state suffered from inadequate instructional materials, curricula and teachers. The court highlighted that insufficient instructional material for Native Americans violated statutory mandates and therefore the constitutional rights of those students.

Judge Singleton determined that the essential resources to deliver a reasonable curriculum must include resources to provide at-risk students the opportunity to compensate for any barriers they may face. Thus, the court found as essential such programs as quality full-day pre-K, summer school, after-school programs, small class size and research-based reading programs. The court credited expert testimony at trial that ELL students , in particular,benefited from smaller class size.

In finding inadequate funding for teachers and teacher training, the court addressed the trial evidence on the impact of New Mexico’s test-based teacher evaluation system, noting that “punitive teacher evaluation systems that penalize teachers for working in high-need schools” exacerbated the quality-teacher supply deficits in these schools. The court also found that high-needs districts had more inexperienced teachers, noting that it “is well-recognized that inexperienced teachers are systematically less effective than experienced teachers.”

Inadequate Student Outcomes

Judge Singleton found that the inadequate inputs in New Mexico’s schools led to inadequate student outcomes. She found that New Mexico students rank at the bottom of the nation in English and Math proficiency and high school graduation. The numbers are even worse, she found, for low-income, Native American and ELL students.

The court rejected state claims that outputs are sufficient because at-risk students show growth in achievement. She held that growth is not sufficient, since vulnerable student groups, despite growth, are do not attain proficiency. The court also remarked that even the state is unhappy with the rate of growth among at-risk groups.

The court also credited the evidence demonstrating that of the New Mexico students attending college, a substantial number require remediation—proof that these students were not college-ready.

State Defenses Rejected

Judge Singleton rejected the State’s contention that state intervention was adequate in compensating for any inadequacies, noting that these interventions have not altered the evidence demonstrating that “at-risk students are still not attaining proficiency at the rate of non at-risk students.” The court found that the state Public Education Department assistance and oversight programs are piecemeal, and thus cannot replace adequate state school funding.

The court also dismissed the State’s excuse that students’ inadequate outcomes stem from socio-economic factors not attributable to the school system. Judge Singleton noted that while many of these factors exist outside schools, school programs, such as quality pre-K, K-3 Plus, extended school year, and quality teachers, have been proven to mitigate these factors and raise the achievement of at-risk students.

In fact, Judge Singleton noted the testimony of the State’s experts, such as Eric Hanushek, who concluded that funding does make a difference in outcomes for at-risk students.

Judge Singleton also rejected claims made by New Mexico often made by states in other school funding cases. Notably, the court noted that the State could not escape its constitutional responsibility by contending that it cannot control district spending, since the state has supervisory responsibility over local districts.

The court also dismissed the contention that the State is constrained by the limited money in the State budget from doing more. The court declared that, “the remedy for lack of funds is not to deny public school children a sufficient education, but rather the answer is to find more funds.”


In addition to finding the state in violation of the Education, Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the state constitution, the court’s declaratory judgment also found that the State:

violated the rights of at-risk students by failing to provide them with a uniform statewide system of free public schools sufficient for their education;
failed to provide at-risk students with programs and services necessary to make them college or career ready;
failed to provide sufficient funding for all districts to deliver the programs and services required by the Constitution; and
failed to supervise districts to assure that funding has been spent in the most efficient manner to meet the need to provide at-risk students with the programs and services necessary to obtain an adequate education.

To remedy the constitutional violation, Judge Singleton ordered the Legislature by April 15, 2019, to “take immediate steps to ensure that New Mexico schools have the resources necessary to give at-risk students the opportunity to obtain a uniform and sufficient education that prepares them for college and career.” The court also ordered the state to implement an accountability system to measure whether programs and services in place actually provide the opportunity for a sound basic education and to ensure that districts are spending funds in a way that efficiently and effectively meets the needs of at-risk students.

Judge Singleton has retained jurisdiction over the case in order to ensure state compliance with her orders.

Wendy Lecker is a Senior Attorney at Education Law Center

Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Policy and Outreach Director
973-624-1815, x 24

Martínez v. State of New Mexico: The Right to a Sufficient Education
Diana Torres-Velásquez


Plaintiffs in the Martínez v. State of New Mexico lawsuit are 51 students, parents, and guardians from seven public school districts across New Mexico. This is a school finance case that goes beyond seeking more funds for public education to arguing that providing a sufficient education for New Mexico’s 338,307 students enrolled during the 2016-2017 school year (New Mexico Public Education Department, 2017) involves more than increasing the amount of money allocated for pupils across its 89 school districts. Although the plaintiffs in this case represent low-income and high-need families of many ethnic backgrounds in New Mexico, students who are English Language Learners, and students with disabilities, the outcome has the potential to affect every student, teacher, and administrator in the state. The trial will begin on June 12th of 2017. When the case was originally filed in 2014, New Mexico’s Public Education Department (NMPED)—the defendants in this case—immediately countered with a motion to dismiss. In October of 2014, as First District Court Chief Judge Sarah Singleton rejected the motion to dismiss, she also used the opportunity to declare public education a fundamental right in New Mexico. Martínez v State of New Mexico (2014a) has the potential to transform not only the definition of equal protection and educational equity under the law, but also to correct the discriminatory and punitive practices of current reform agendas. The author examines the possibilities of law as a form of social resistance using Martínez v. State of New Mexico (2014a)—a legal case on school finance—and the concept of sufficient education as guaranteed by the New Mexico State Constitution.

Full Text:


N.M. to appeal ruling on education funding for at-risk students
By Robert Nott | Jul 24, 2018

The state government intends to appeal a District Court judge’s ruling late last week that New Mexico must provide more resources to public schools to ensure at-risk students receive a sufficient education.

“Unfortunately, the judge missed the boat with this ruling,” state Public Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said late Monday, when he announced plans to appeal the decision.

Since Gov. Susana Martinez took office in 2011, Ruszkowski said, she repeatedly has increased funding for public schools and has invested in reform initiatives to improve student achievement rates, such as literacy programs for young children, the K-3 Plus summer program for low-income students, prekindergarten services and professional development for teachers.

“New Mexico’s school turnaround efforts are now some of the strongest in the country,” he said.

But teachers unions and political leaders decried the news.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Michelle Lujan Grisham, a U.S. congresswoman, asked Martinez to not to appeal the decision by First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton and said if she’s elected, she would “immediately halt any appeal initiated by her administration upon taking office.”

Kevin Sheridan, a spokesman for Republican gubernatorial candidate Steve Pearce, also a U.S. congressman, stopped short of saying Pearce would quell the appeal but said, “As the court battle goes forward, Steve Pearce remains committed to taking action as governor to fix New Mexico’s broken education system and addressing the serious problems the judge points out in her decision.”

Singleton ruled Friday that New Mexico’s schoolchildren are “caught in an inadequate system and will remain there … if better programs are not instituted.”

The lawsuit, filed in 2014 and tried last summer in Singleton’s courtroom, addressed whether the state was providing enough resources to ensure that students — many of whom are impoverished, have special needs or are English-language learners — have a shot at success in college and careers.

Singleton did not give specific orders for how state leaders, including lawmakers, must address the issue. Rather, she gave the state until April 15 to take steps to increase resources for public schools.

Both sides have 28 days to file an appeal of the ruling.

Many educators and school administrators praised the judge’s decision over the weekend and expressed hope that the ruling would spur positive changes for the education system.

On Tuesday, teachers union leaders blasted the state over its plan to appeal.

Charles Bowyer, executive director of the National Education Association of New Mexico, said he was “extremely disappointed, but not surprised” by the appeal.

Denouncing the governor’s public education policies as harmful to both teachers and students, he said state officials will now “wrongly defend their discredited programs and too-small budgets by using their last few months in power to appeal the judge’s decision.”

Said Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico: “This administration is woefully out of step even in its waning days, as it has been throughout the last eight years. Educator voices and stakeholders from across the spectrum have championed the court’s recent decision, and further delaying adequate funding for our public schools only deepens the crisis of funding which exists in New Mexico.”

The state almost always ranks near or at the bottom of national studies on public education. Though graduation rates have slowly increased during Martinez’s tenure, the most recent rate of 71 percent is still one of the lowest in the nation.

And based on recently released results of statewide math and reading exams, just over 1 in 5 of the nearly 215,000 New Mexico students in grades 3-11 showed proficiency in math and 31 percent passed the test in English language arts.

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