Indigenous educators urge lawmakers to fund a transformation of public schools

During the pandemic, they say, culturally appropriate teaching and learning are critical

By: - February 1, 2022 7:22 am

(Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Three education bills enhancing support for Native American education reform in New Mexico passed out of committee Monday morning. 

The House Education Committee pushed forward legislation sponsored by Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) that commits $70 million to directly addressing the state’s requirement to meet a court mandate under the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit. 

The landmark court decision from 2018 ruled New Mexico failed to provide adequate education to students with disabilities, who are Indigenous, who are learning English and who come from families with low incomes. It requires the state to meet its constitutional obligation through funding and reform in the classroom.

More than 31,000 Native American students attend public school in the state, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.

Lawmakers allocated more money to Tribes in recent years. For instance, the Public Education Department awarded $2.2 million to all Tribal entities in the state this year, up from the $600,000 awarded in 2016. Lente’s proposals not only significantly boost available money but also puts it in the hands of Tribal leaders who argue they know the best standards and needs in their communities.

“This will provide more predictable, much more flexible ways for the Tribes to use this resource to deliver educational programs services to supplement school-based programs, specifically designed to help meet Native American students needs, specifically to agreements and fundings,” Lente said. 

How the money would be spent

Under House Bill 87, up to 70% of funding from New Mexico’s Indian Education Fund would go directly to Tribal governments. The bill sets an appropriation of $20 million that would go to the Indian Education Fund, meaning tribes could have up to $14 million to spend on schools in their community as soon as July 2023, which marks the beginning of the fiscal year. 

The state Public Education Department would allocate the rest of the money to schools to meet requirements under the Indian Education Act.

House Education Committee meeting room on Monday, Jan. 31. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

House Bill 88 seeks to appropriate $21.5 million aimed at the foundation of schools run by Tribal education departments. Broken down, the bill gives $5.75 million for departments to, “build capacity and develop plans.” Another $10 million would go to the Tribal schools for extended learning and Native language programs. And $5.75 million would go to Tribal library programs and operations.

The proposal would create a recurring appropriation, meaning the state would give these departments money each year for these programs.

HB 88 prompted substantial support from Tribal community members across the state. 

Norman J. Cooeyate (Zuni) told lawmakers Tribal libraries can be a hub “not only for expanding the education of children within the Western modalities of learning through books, but also can be used as a repository to bring in culturally appropriate teaching methods, such as storytelling or recordings, audio and digital.”

Tracy Cordero, the director of the Keres Learning Center in Cochiti Pueblo, said the bill is essential to the mission of the nationally recognized education program.

It will fully allow us to do what we aim to do, which is authentic Indigenous education in a way that does not ask our Cochiti youth to compromise their Indigenous identity in the name of Western academics.

– Tracy Cordero, director of the Keres Learning Center in Cochiti Pueblo

More than $29.6 million would go to New Mexico’s four state-run universities and three Tribal colleges under the legislation proposed by House Bill 90. There are eight sections in the legislation that directly address how to comply with Yazzie-Martinez across each higher education institution. 

The largest appropriation of $8.5 million would go to create a Native American teacher and education administrator pipeline. 

“Higher education programs are an integral part of the education ecosystem,” said Conroy Chino (Acoma). “Not only do they train teachers, develop school curriculum and pedagogy, and create Native language programs, but they can also assist when PED or school districts or Tribes have struggled to develop appropriate services for Native students.”

Development of Indigenous curriculum programs would receive $1.5 million. A plan to develop health and social services for Native American K-12 students would receive $4.5 million. College and career readiness programs would get $5.7 million. More than $4.5 million would go to culturally and linguistically appropriate education. Assistance to build capacity for Tribal education departments gets $1.8 million. And $1.3 million would go to assist with digital needs such as broadband access. 

Dr. Elmer Guy, president at the Navajo Technical University, said it’s imperative that legislators support these efforts soon. 

“With the current COVID pandemic, we lost many of our elders, and they are essentially our knowledge-keepers,” said Guy (Diné). “And we cannot continue to lose that important knowledge, and development of these digital materials are essential to maintain the culture of many of our students in the community.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.