Lawsuit challenges New Mexico special education funding

Photo of a school building
Special Education Crisis in New Mexico

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed an amended complaint June 12 in a case alleging that the state is violating the New Mexico Constitution by failing to adequately fund special education programs, as well as services for bilingual and other at-risk students.

“Serving the needs of students with disabilities is a quintessential responsibility of the public schools,” said Thomas A. Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF, in a news release. “New Mexico’s failure to adequately serve those with the greatest educational needs is unforgivable, and requires swift redress.”

The lawsuit accuses the state of violating both the state’s education clause, which recognizes education as a fundamental right, and its equal protection clause.

According to the complaint, New Mexico ranks 39th nationally in special education funding per student. As a result, the state has a significant lack of qualified service providers.

In addition, parents attempting to have their students evaluated for special education services encounter significant delays, the lawsuit alleges. In Albuquerque, the process of the initial evaluation, assessment, and the placement via the student’s Individual Education Plans can take as long as a year.

“The arbitrary and insufficient funding for students with disabilities often forces school districts to choose between shortchanging students with disabilities and/or delaying their identification and placement, or re-directing funds away from other necessary programs, thereby preventing denying a sufficient education to the district’s other students,” the lawsuit states.

As MALDEF sees it, these problems will likely be exacerbated by the recent emphasis on accountability and teacher evaluation systems.

“The gravity of the problem cannot be understated. Despite the stark change in student demographics and high-need students, the State continues to ignore the educational needs of the growing populations of economically disadvantaged and (English Language Learner) students, while increasing the rigor of testing and accountability requirements, among other ‘educational reform’ efforts—paying no mind to the overall negative effect on its duty to provide a uniform and sufficient education,” the lawsuit states.

The complaint was filed in the First Judicial District of the County of Santa Fe.