Native American education advocates in NM seek long-term funding for reform

Rep. Derrick Lente pursues $50 million to put tribes in the driver’s seat and start a Tribal Education Trust Fund

By: - January 17, 2023 5:00 am
A statue of several children outside the entrance to the New Mexico state capitol is covered in snow.

N.M. lawmakers studying how to move education policy forward endorsed several pieces of legislation, including one creating a Tribal Education Trust Fund. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) received endorsements Monday for two bills intended to directly address the legacy of racism and disparity for Indigenous students in New Mexico’s schools.

The bills would allocate millions in funding toward equitable education in the state, prioritizing tribal leadership and funding for tribal efforts to build culturally and linguistically relevant programs.

“Our proposals have been the most direct, targeted pieces of legislation for Native American education,” Lente said. “The state has been throwing money at a problem, and that’s not going to solve things.”

He said the lack of targeted investments have been a hindrance to improving tribal education.

The Legislative Education Study Committee voted to endorse one bill that would amend the Indian Education Act. The other is asking the state for $50 million to upstart a trust fund to help tribes build educational programs and systems for tribal communities across New Mexico.

“It’s about doggone time that we use these resources the way the communities that would most benefit from know-how to use them,” said Rep. Christine Trujillo (D-Albuquerque) in support of the trust fund.

The Tribal Education Trust Fund, if passed, would pull $50 million from the Public Education Reform Fund with an annual 5% distribution starting in fiscal year 2025. Tribes would initially get about $100,000 each.

Four years into court-mandated education reform, lawmakers look at compliance

Lente plans to introduce the endorsed legislation later this week.

All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Mark Mitchell (Tesque) spoke in favor of the trust fund, quoting Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Single Garment of Destiny” speech where he said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Lente said the delays to bridging the education gaps for Native students has been denying those students the right to a good education.

“This goes right along with the same notion of how many Native American students have (been) denied … an equitable (allotment) to allow them to learn how they want to learn in their own communities,” he told the committee.

Lente said he plans to introduce three more tribal education bills that would: 

  • Allocate more funding to community-based education
  • Put $2.5 million toward the creation of Technical Assistance Centers for Indian Education to provide guidance and support to school districts
  • Require the Early Childhood Education and Care Department to enter into an intergovernmental agreement at the request of a tribe

It’s been almost five years since the landmark Yazzie-Martinez ruling found that New Mexico violates the constitutional rights of students learning English, living with disabilities or in poverty. The court also highlighted a public school system that failed Native American communities from pre-k to high school. 

Despite more than $1 billion invested into the state’s Public Education Department since the ruling in 2018 — and another request this year to the Legislature for more funding to meet the court’s order — Yazzie-Martinez advocates maintain the state simply does not have the capacity to meet its obligations to the ruling.The state should invest money into tribal education systems, advocates say, so they can take the wheel on things such as developing traditional language classes, classwork tied to cultural heritage, and developing teachers or administrators from Native communities.

Wilhelmina Yazzie, the plaintiff in a lawsuit that spurned public school reform in New Mexico, poses in Albuquerque, on Nov. 8. 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Lente’s bills stem from solutions to Yazzie-Martinez already identified by the Tribal Remedy Framework, a plan developed by the University of New Mexico’s Native American Budget and Policy Institute with the input of Native students, parents and community leaders.

Sometimes changes the state is attempting to improve education overall don’t fit with Indigenous students’ needs, he said, pointing to the push to extend student learning time. The initiative was born without tribal input and “creates more inequities for Native and rural communities,” Lente said. 

Many students living on tribal land have to be bussed an hour or more away to attend public school, and requiring them to be in school longer means they now have to wake up even earlier to commute, unlike students who live in the area.

Lente said tribes would be given money to expand educational programs and resources for students closer to their homes, with funding provided by the trust fund. Native students often cannot explore after-school activities because they live far away. Allocating money to the tribes themselves would empower tribal self-determination and allow for better responsiveness to student needs, he argued.

New Mexico shared a plan to address the Yazzie-Martinez ruling with tribal leaders in 2022 that included parts of the Tribal Remedy Framework, but leaders behind the tribal education plans said this is not enough.

Governors and presidents from the 22 tribes in New Mexico listen to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham discuss the state’s response to education reform during the 2022 Tribal Leadership Summit on June 2, 2022. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)

Regis Pecos, the former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and longtime advocate for education reform, said PED does not have the capacity to meet its obligations outlined in the Yazzie-Martinez decision.

“Nothing will change even if the state invests millions of dollars in the same systems that don’t have the capacity to respond to this ruling,” Pecos said. “The way you make a permanent investment is for the Tribal Education Trust Fund to be established so it’s sustainable, and it’s not a political fight every year, which is the sad reality.”

He calls for a drastic change in the system that would abandon the Western model of education that excludes Native children.

The Yazzie-Martinez ruling compels New Mexico to create this new model of education to give students the opportunity to see themselves reflected in what they’re learning. But funding the same exclusive systems fails to recognize that Native students are citizens of two nations, Pecos said. 

For Native students, being educationally and civically ready also means being able to speak their language, a familiarity with their culture and a knowledge of traditional laws.

The New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which represented plaintiffs in the Yazzie-Martinez case, said in a statement Lente’s bills are necessary, adding that “without a comprehensive education plan, any state appropriations will remain a piecemeal attempt that will not meet the court’s order requiring an overhaul or a transformation of the way public education is funded.”

Monday’s endorsement by the Legislative Education Study Committee, an interim committee that meets throughout the year to discuss the proposal’s it supported, is just another branch of support from vital state leaders.

New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard, whose office funds public education with revenue from extractive industries on state land, voiced support for the trust fund while campaigning in October before the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

NM Public Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard speaks at the All Pueblo Council of Governors candidate forum on Oct. 14, 2022. (Photo by Gino Gutierrez for Source NM)

She said now is the optimal time to invest in improved tribal education because the office’s total assets have surpassed $40 billion for the first time in its history.

Garcia Richard cited inequities in access to the internet, a lack of culturally competent schooling and the lack of availability of Native languages classes as areas that need more investment and could not successfully grow without the leadership of the tribes.

For Lente, the bills are about pushing the state to meet the same obligations to Native students that it does to everyone else.

“Education for me was the great equalizer that gave me more experiences,” he said. “Intentional planning toward education means everyone can also have that shot. We’re not trying to win the Olympics of oppression, but the court ruled that we are living in disparity as Native Americans.”


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Megan Taros
Megan Taros

Megan Taros is a freelance reporter for Source NM. She is born and raised in the harbor area of Los Angeles where she began her career covering higher education and local government. She previously launched the South Phoenix beat at the Arizona Republic where she covered race and equity in one of the largest communities of color in the state. She also launched the Latino affairs beat at the Times-News in Twin Falls, Idaho. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she covered racial and economic inequality in Queens, New York.