The push to tap NM’s Land Grant Permanent Fund for education
After years of work, the issue finally heads to voters’ ballots in November
Voters will be asked in November whether the state should pull more money from the Land Grant Permanent Fund for education for programs like Jemez Pueblo’s early childhood education and Head Start programs, where children are immersed in a curriculum that imparts local values, a strong sense of cultural identity and confidence in speaking Towa. (Photo by Helen Tafoya, courtesy of Pueblo of Jemez)
Tribal leaders and advocates leading education reform in New Mexico launched their campaign to ask voters to support a ballot initiative that would take more money from the state’s $25.5 billion Land Grant Permanent Fund and spend it on public school students, including those in pre-K.
“New Mexico has the unique opportunity to be the leader nationally, and from our perspective as Indigenous people, of our respective nations, we can create for a whole shift in the paradigm in education,” Regis Pecos said.
Pecos (Cochiti) is at the forefront of education reform as an advocate and expert witness testifying in the landmark lawsuit Yazzie-Martinez. He said it’s taken more than a decade to reach this point and contends voters have a rare chance to amend the state constitution “to provide the opportunity to access one of the wealthiest, permanent funds in this nation.”
In 2018, Judge Sarah Singleton ruled that the state of New Mexico provided an inadequate public education for students who are Native American, living with disabilities, learning English as a second language and from families that have low incomes. The state is mandated to reform its education system and made some financial gains to meet the court order, but advocate groups like NM Native Vote want a greater commitment.
Chloe Jake is with NM Native Vote, the organization that built the Indigenous coalition to support this campaign. She said the Land Grant Permanent Fund was created at “the expense of the loss of Indigenous lands.”
Text of the initiative on the Nov. ballot.
Voters will be asked to vote yes or no:
Proposing an amendment Article 12, Section 7 of the constitution of New Mexico to provide for additional annual distribution of the permanent school fund for enhanced instruction for students at risk of failure , extending the school year, teacher compensation and early childhood education; requiring congressional approval for distribution for early childhood education.
“The fact that we have not seen equity in so many areas, especially education, especially in preparing our young ones for a future that is successful and prosperous, it is really important that we be able to leverage those funds to make those investments into the young people,” said Jake (Pawnee/Laguna).
As of 2020, the state’s constitution takes 5% of New Mexico’s Land Grant Permanent Fund and distributes it to state agencies. More than $1 billion was spent from the fund during the previous fiscal year, with more than two-thirds going to public education.
Tracey Cordero is the director of the Indigenous Montessori Institute, a program within the Keres Children’s Learning Center.
“With this abundance of funding, there’s no longer a need to do education from a deficit model or a scarcity approach,” she said. “There’s enough for all of us.”
If Pecos and his group succeed in getting voters on their side to support the constitutional amendment, then the state would increase its permanent fund distribution by 1.25%, with that money going toward early childhood education and an increase of funding for K-12 schools. Revenue projections show that if the amendment is passed, the fund could distribute at least $125 million in pre-K and up to $75 million in K-12 programs each year.
The fund is derived from 13 million acres of land grants from the United States under the Ferguson Act of 1898 and the Enabling Act of 1910.
Revenue on these lands from sources like mineral exploration and from oil and gas industries — booming industries in New Mexico — are placed in a permanent endowment that is then invested by the State Investment Council.
According to a report released by the Legislative Finance Committee, the fund has seen growth each year for nearly a decade. It sits at $25.5 billion. In 2017, the land grant permanent fund was valued at $15.8 billion.
This is why education advocates think it is time to tap the fund and give additional money to early childhood education and a K-12 initiative they say will support the court mandate for reform under Yazzie-Martinez.
Not only do Native American groups say this money will go a long way toward the court’s mandate to reform education, there is also a demand that the state must meet its obligations to Indigenous communities by returning money made off lands taken from Native people.
The All Pueblo Council of Governors supports the ballot initiative. Chairman Mark Mitchell (Tesuque) said the reform can provide a sense of equity for tribal communities.
“We must bring attention to the fact that the land from which we all benefit monetarily is ancestral land to our indigenous people. It is precious land,” Mitchell said. “Our Pueblo handprint covers the entire state and region of the Southwest. The Apache and Navajo people have also been divested of their traditional land holdings in the state.”
The group also has concrete plans about where to spend additional money, with a goal of directing funds to tribal education departments they say can reform local schools efficiently.
Directors from the Walatowa Head Start Language Immersion Program and Keres Children’s Learning Center also spoke in support of the ballot initiative, saying their programs are examples of successful education models that center traditional values such as language with contemporary education models that could benefit from additional investments.
“It’s a model of education that best allows our own heritage language of Keres to exist naturally,” said Cordero (Cochiti).
Cordero (Cochiti) said her Montessori program at the KCLC teaches students how to be dual citizens as members of their traditional culture and the United States. However, state and federal funding is something the school does not receive because she says the state does not support the Montessori structure, despite vocal support from state Public Education Department leadership, such as PED Secretary Kurt Steinhaus.
“Even though our children can multiply, divide, read and write English and speak Keres, at a developmentally fluent level, we’re not seen as a school,” Cordero said. “We’re constantly fundraising.”
She not only wants this permanent fund provide more funding overall but to see state leaders make pathways to support models like the KCLC.
“When you shine the light on us, you shine the light on everybody, and we all benefit from it,” she said. “And I’m talking about Cochiti children. I’m talking about Indigenous children not having to compromise their identity.”
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