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New Mexico's top prosecutor vows to move ahead with Native education litigation

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It's been five years since a New Mexico judge issued a landmark ruling finding that the state was falling short in providing an adequate education to Native American students and many others, and the pace of progress since has been frustratingly slow for tribal leaders.

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said he intends to take over the ongoing litigation that led to the ruling from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to ensure that the state complies with court-ordered mandates.

The announcement was made public Tuesday, just days after Torrez met with Pueblo governors. The leaders welcomed Torrez's move, saying that many students who have graduated over the last five years were unable to reap the benefits of any changes.

"Now, my hope is that policies will finally be put in place and education programs will be developed, along with recurring funding, so that our children get the education they richly deserve both now and in the future,” said Randall Vicente, the governor of Acoma Pueblo and a member of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

Torrez, a Democrat, told the tribal leaders during their monthly meeting that the litigation — known as the Yazzie v. Martinez case — identified systemic issues within the state’s education system and was monumental in setting a precedent for Native American and other minority students.

New Mexico historically has been at the bottom of the list when it comes to educational outcomes nationwide. Struggles to address lagging test scores and low graduation rates predated the coronavirus pandemic, and lawmakers have been pouring millions of dollars into efforts to boost access to broadband across the rural state as a way to get more students connected to the services they need.

The attorney general's office confirmed Tuesday that Torrez and members of his civil rights team already have met with lawyers representing the plaintiffs, including the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, and the advocates and experts who helped draft a plan for meeting the needs of Native students.

Preliminary discussions also included Lujan Grisham, a Democrat who initially sought to have the case dismissed in 2020. Lujan Grisham has since defended her administration, saying progress has been made. That includes adding more classroom time to the school year, paying teachers more, providing free school lunches and creating an office dedicated to special education.

Caroline Sweeney, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email Tuesday that the Lujan Grisham administration inherited the case and that Lujan Grisham has enacted “all the right policies” and has funneled more money to public schools.

The governor's office placed the onus on local school officials.

“The bottom line is this: 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 said. “The attorney general’s office has the power to do just that. We have raised this issue with sovereign nations, and they agree.”

Native American leaders have complained that legislative efforts and funding allocations to address the public education system’s deficiencies have been piecemeal. The state Public Education Department also has yet to finalize its own plan to address the ongoing education lawsuit after soliciting public comment in the summer of 2022.

It's too early to say what effects the attorney general's intervention might have, but advocates said they are willing to work with anyone from the state to get results for students.

Other plaintiffs include low-income students and those learning English as a second language.

Advocates have been talking with students, parents and teachers from different New Mexico communities and hearing similar stories about teacher shortages, scarce resources, limited technology and internet access, and not enough culturally relevant instructional materials.

“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,” Melissa Candelaria, an attorney and the education director at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, said in a statement.