#InspiredBy68: Ruling in New Mexico Blows Open the Doors that are Holding Students Back

Note: this post is part of a series called #InspiredBy68 in honor of 50 years since the progressive activism of 1968.

“I’ve decided to go to UCLA,” the young Latina enthusiastically declared.

A weak smile appeared across the high school guidance counselor’s face. She realized her counselor didn’t share her excitement.

“Honey, I think you should reconsider. For your own good. Go to an easier school. UCLA will be too hard for you.”

The words stung. The student had done everything right. Got good grades. Appeared in every play. Served as senior class vice president. Worked part-time. She felt not only had she earned her place at UCLA—she was ready for success.

But the guidance counselor knew the truth. An overcrowded public high school, in a majority Latino, working-class community did not—and could not—fully prepare even its top academic students for the rigors of college.

My first two years at UCLA were grueling. I didn’t think I would make it.

Freshman year I landed in remedial courses, devastated with embarrassment as kids from wealthier zip codes were light years ahead in their education. It was clear what students in my classes had in common—we were people of color from poor urban and rural communities. Many of us were the first in our families to attend college.

My family was filled with pride—just getting into college was an accomplishment. I could not possibly explain to them the level of anxiety I was experiencing. Failure was not an option.

I was born in 1968, the year thousands of high school students in East Los Angeles walked out of their classrooms. This ignited the Chicano movement, sowing the seeds for activism around education reform in the Southwest. The students brought national attention to the connection between institutional racism and education. Students were tired of poorly paid teachers, a lack of college prep courses, dilapidated campuses and a philosophy of pushing kids along a vocational pathway as opposed to seizing their potential for higher education.

While many of these same issues persist today, a landmark legal victory led by families and activists in New Mexico has set the stage for a watershed moment in education reform.

A state court ruled that New Mexico’s education system violates the state constitution for its failure to provide students a sufficient public education.

Families and school districts in the consolidated lawsuit Yazzie v. State of New Mexico and Martinez v. State of New Mexico challenged the state’s arbitrary and inadequate funding of public schools as well as its failure to provide the programs and services needed for students to be college, career and civic ready. The suit successfully argued that the lack of necessary monitoring and oversight deprived students of the resources and services they need to succeed—particularly low-income, students of color, including Native American, English-language learners, and students with disabilities.

The state of New Mexico has until April 15, 2019 to remedy the situation including reforming the system of financing and managing its public schools.

This victory comes at time of crisis. Seventy percent of New Mexico students cannot read or write at grade level, 80 percent cannot do math at grade level and graduation rates are among the lowest in the nation.

The future of New Mexico could forever be shaped by this decision. The State of New Mexico must make haste to embrace this opportunity to begin righting a history of wrong.

Fenton is honored to support the W.K Kellogg Foundation, the New Mexico Center on Law & Poverty and MALDEF in their efforts to bring justice to New Mexico’s children and families. Now the work begins to make good on the court’s ruling.

And me? Well, I did make it.

I became the first Latina Editor-in-Chief of the UCLA Daily Bruin and graduated with accolades. I say this only to inspire others who are told they are not good enough based on their race or ethnicity, gender, birthplace, where they live or go to school.  Don’t ever doubt your potential. Now, the ruling in New Mexico blows open the doors holding students back from achieving their greatest potential.