Injunction on 180-day rule is 'elephant in the room' as ed chief addresses lawmakers

May 16—Though a state district judge has temporarily blocked the New Mexico Public Education Department's new requirement that schools hold 180 days of learning each year, the controversial rule remains top of mind for lawmakers.

As Public Education Secretary Arsenio Romero gave a presentation Thursday updating the Legislative Education Study Committee on his department's recent efforts and legislative priorities, lawmakers — Republican and Democratic — noted the judge's decision this week in a civil case challenging the rule.

"It is a bit of an elephant in the room, the 180-day decision by the judge," said Rep. Joy Garratt, D-Albuquerque.

Fifth Judicial District Judge Dustin Hunter on Monday imposed a preliminary injunction on the rule, barring the Public Education Department from implementing it until the conclusion of the lawsuit brought by the New Mexico School Superintendents Association and more than 50 school districts across the state — including Santa Fe Public Schools.

The injunction, which comes at the peak of the time period in which public school districts and charter schools draft their budgets and calendars for next year, means "business as usual." Romero confirmed schools will be allowed to maintain calendars with fewer than 180 days of instruction in 2023-24.

"We will be moving forward and adapting to the judge's order. This is something that we are continuing to work on," he said.

The rule has been hotly contested since its proposal in November 2023 and the target of much scrutiny by legislators. A handful of Republican lawmakers are even listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

At Monday's court hearing, Hunter said he imposed the preliminary injunction in large part because the 180-day rule did not adhere to New Mexico's legislative history and intent, most notably legislation in 2023 requiring 1,140 hours — not days — of learning for public school students.

Garratt made that point during Thursday's meeting.

"I'm one of the sponsors of the 1,140 hours [requirement], and it was only in place for two months when suddenly a rule was made," she said. "I feel like [that's] not honoring the legislative intent."

Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, approached the issue more harshly, arguing the 180-day rule was the kind of "complete overstep" of authority by the department that lawmakers should work to rein in.

"We as legislators are going to have to be a little more careful because we have departments that have decided they don't really care what we think or what we do. And I'm sorry to say, but I believe your department has gone a little rogue," Brandt told Romero.

He continued, "You don't really care what the Legislature has given you authority to do; you're just doing whatever the hell you want."