SANTA FE – Lawyers representing New Mexico students say the state’s attempts to provide internet access and learning devices to children are “woefully insufficient.”
With in-person learning banned by state officials until mid-January and plans for hybrid learning scrapped for the vast majority of students earlier this year, the inability to access remote classes has been a challenge for many rural and low-income students, particularly Native American children living on tribal lands.
“We were hopeful children could return to in-person learning in early fall, but that didn’t happen,” said Maria Archuleta with the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which has been involved in the case. “Access to technology was essential before the pandemic and will be when the pandemic is over. Right now, it is absolutely necessary. Beyond critical. Kids simply can’t do without it.”
Education officials across the state’s 89 school districts have purchased tens of thousands of laptops and worked with the governor and the Public Education Department to provide Wi-Fi hotspots in many areas during the pandemic.
In response to the motion, the Public Education Department highlighted state efforts to support increased internet access during the pandemic.
Spokeswoman Judy Robinson pointed to the north central Peñasco school district mentioned in the motion, saying it has gone from having 50 families without internet access in August to just two.
“We have made this progress just recently. It has been an effort that has taken eight months,” Peñasco schools Superintendent Lisa Hamilton said.
But thousands of children are still offline, and an untold number have limited internet connectivity that doesn’t allow them to upload or download video. Some students have relied on their parent’s cellphone hotspots, which can run out of data or can’t be left at home when the parent goes to work.
While some school districts have tested connection speeds at student homes, the state hasn’t.
In a motion filed Tuesday, lawyers have asked state District Judge Matthew Wilson to order the state to connect more children to online learning by immediately identifying students who lack laptops or tablets and providing internet vouchers for at-risk households.
About 9% of New Mexico students don’t live on the broadband grid, Archuleta said.
The motion also seeks to force the state to provide Wi-Fi hotspots immediately while it works to lay fiber optic cable to reach students’ homes.
Separate lawsuits over the adequacy of New Mexico’s education system were originally filed against then-Gov. Susana Martinez in 2014 and went to trial in 2017. The center’s lawyers work as part of the team litigating the case, which merged the long-standing concerns of Native Americans, English language learners, the emotionally and physically disabled and low-income students.
The lawsuit has driven lawmaker’s conversations about education funding and the state’s policies.
“Over the last two years, the PED, with leadership from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and partnership with the Legislature, raised teacher salaries to recruit and retain more teachers, increased funding for serving at-risk students and funded an expansion of programs that added days to the school year. Each of those actions directly addressed the needs of the student groups – Native American students, English learners, students with disabilities and economically disadvantaged students – named in the Martinez/Yazzie lawsuit,” Education Secretary Ryan Stewart wrote Sunday in an op-ed in the Albuquerque Journal.
He also called for the end to state control over federal funding allocated to tribal areas and military bases, “impact aid” meant to fund education in communities that can’t levy local taxes.
The lawsuit also is supported by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
The center estimates that about 80% of New Mexico’s children are represented by the lawsuit.
The right to an “adequate” education is guaranteed in New Mexico’s constitution. But the state hasn’t met that standard, according to the courts. The plaintiffs marked a key victory in 2018 when a judge ruled the state’s education system was in violation of the constitution.
Earlier this year, Wilson rejected Lujan Grisham’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, saying the state hadn’t complied with the court’s order to fix the education system.