A complicated set of regulations against t-shirts, stripes, logos, spaghetti straps, crop tops and specific brands has been replaced with a more generic dress code that gives students more discretion in what they wear to school.
The original rationale for the standard dress policy was to focus students’ attention on academics rather than clothing, and to prohibit items that communicated gang affiliation. Over time it devolved into a minefield of rules and exceptions, which educators devoted many school hours attempting to enforce.
The new dress code, which went into effect with the start of this school year, requires basic decency (cover the butt, breasts and genitals), and prohibits images or words that promote violence, profanity, hate speech or illegal activities. Beyond that, students have more freedom to dress as they wish.
I imagined my son’s pre-teen voice to be among those cheering the demise of standard dress this summer.
“I hate its guts,” he said back in sixth grade when the policy was first enacted — probably more out of resentment about being told what to do than contempt for the clothing itself.
Not everyone in my imaginary chorus was singing in unison, however.
“I’m mixed,” an elementary teacher told me. “It’s nice to see children dress like children, but clothes create so much pressure. The styles, the name brands, become a socioeconomic nightmare for kids and parents.” She also noted that she and her colleagues often bought clothing for children who weren’t in standard dress, since in most of those cases the parents couldn’t afford it.
Later this summer I imagined another cheer erupting around town – this one blending surprise, relief, cautious optimism, maybe a few notes of cynicism.
In July, First Judicial District Judge Sarah Singleton issued her ruling in a suit against the state of New Mexico: The state department of public education is not meeting its constitutional educational obligations to all of its students to provide resources needed to succeed in school, career and community.
The lawsuit combined two cases — Martinez v. State of New Mexico,filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), and Yazzie v. State of New Mexico, filed by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty — on behalf of parents, children and school districts claiming that the state was depriving students of resources for sufficient education, particularly those who are Native American, economically disadvantaged, disabled or English-language learners.
Students in these groups, the plaintiffs argued, are most likely to attend schools that are underfunded and have the least access to technology, textbooks and other classroom resources. They are also most likely to first arrive at school without having attended preschool, pre-kindergarten or other programs that could prepare them to read.
And while this is true all over the country, New Mexico has the highest rate of child poverty in the country, and the second highest rate of children of non-white ethnicity. These circumstances justify a step up in our state’s investment in education, yet New Mexico has made some of the deepest cuts to K-12 education in the last 10 years of any state in the country, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The wording of Singleton’s decision is unequivocal and allows no wiggle room for using money, or lack thereof, as an excuse.
“[T]he remedy for lack of funds is not to deny public school children a sufficient education, but rather the answer is to finds more funds,” she writes.
While the decision does not provide specific steps the legislature should take, it points to 11 possible revenue sources, including tapping the state’s permanent funds, restructuring gross receipts tax, and increasing the progressiveness of our income tax. It gives the legislature and governor a deadline of April 15, 2019, to determine what reforms it will implement to address the shortcomings.
My heart swells to see parents across demographics using the power of the legal system to address educational inequities. So often we try to fill systemic gaps in children’s opportunities by holding another fundraiser, joining another committee or putting in another hour of volunteering, rather than using the courts and the constitution to our aid. Often those kinds of strides can seem out of reach, especially for those students (and their parents) named in the suit whom the education system has not fully served. Judge Singleton’s decision affirms these efforts. New Mexico Voices for Children, a nonpartisan group that advocates for legislation supporting kids and families, calls it “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to strengthen our state’s future by investing in our children.”
What happens now remains to be seen.
The Martinez administration responded almost immediately by announcing that it will appeal, stating that it has already invested sufficiently in initiatives to improve student achievement.
Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee to replace Gov. Martinez in November, has said she will halt the appeal if elected. Steve Pierce, the Republican nominee, has called for restructuring the educational system before looking for new money: “Throwing more moneyat a broken system without reforming it won’t get the job done,” he said in an Albuquerque Journal interview in July.
The phrase, “throwing money at a problem,” has become quite trendy in recent years, a seemingly sensible caveat in financially-lean times. Yet to my eyes, using it with such frequency is what magicians call misdirection: calling our attention over here, to distract us from the sleight-of-hand over there. Over my years as a parent and children’s advocate, I’ve watched an increase in the use of that phrase coincide with a decrease in funding for children’s services and programs. This has placed stringent requirements on the funding that is available to produce more quantifiable outcomes: test scores, student grades and teacher grades.
It’s only “throwing money at a problem” if the problem is already well-funded to begin with. But when our schools don’t have the money to provide all students with adequate textbooks, computer access, after-school and pre-kindergartens to meet the need, and enough teachers to ensure a manageable class size, concern about “throwing money” feels especially empty.
Of course, it’s only common sense to look for evidence that we’re spending state dollars effectively when it comes to public education. Yet when quantitative outcomes like test scores and grades become the sole, or main, benchmark for whether or not children’s programs or services are effective and thus deserve funding, we start throwing out the proverbial babies with the bathwater.
Maybe we throw out the little boy who tries a simple yoga pose or breathing exercise the next time he’s angry (see our article, “Peaceful Poses,” by Maureen Lunn), or the young girl who will major in biology someday because of the scientist who helped her with a science fair experiment (“Full STE(A)M Ahead,” by Diane Smogor).
What about the third grader who couldn’t quite clear the hurdle of reading until he got a little extra help (“Getting Santa Fe Ready to Read,” by Amy Miller and Perli Cunanan)? Or the teen who considers a career working in art galleries because of an innovative program for teens (“Getting Our Hands On Curating”)? Or the kid who learns to love art because of that quirky artist who visited her classroom (see the spot art by ArtWorks students sprinkled through this issue) — to name just a few? Which of these lovely babies do we throw out with the bathwater because these experiences can’t be quantified in the right way, within the allowable time frame?
Let me say it: Let’s throw money at the problem. Throw it wisely, thoughtfully and carefully, but throw it proudly. Some of it is going to hit the bull’s eye. Some of it will change children’s lives in positive ways that won’t be measured for years. Some of it may miss the mark. We face many pitfalls in our big and beautiful state, including the highest child poverty rate and some of the poorest-funded public schools. Overspending on our children isn’t one of them.
We have a rare opportunity this fall to reexamine what our children wear to school and what we spend on education. Both of these issues matter, differently and significantly. Clothing matters in the day to day, which is where children live their lives. Education matters for a lifetime.
The school board will revisit the dress code after the first nine weeks of school. If you approve of or object to the changes, let them know. Wherever you stand on the Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexicodecision, please carefully consider the gubernatorial candidates’ positions on the appeal as you decide how to vote in November. (And by all means, vote!)