Wilhelmina Yazzie speaks at the Roundhouse at the start of the 2019 legislative session. (Photo by Anthony Jackson / New Mexico In Depth)
Five years after a judge mandated public school education reform, New Mexico still has a long road ahead before it will come close to meeting its constitutional obligation.
The case, often shortened to Yazzie-Martinez, was a watershed moment in education.
In 2018, a district court determined a lack of equal education violated the constitutional right of low-income, Native American, African American, Hispanic, Asian American, English language learners and students with disabilities.
In addition to failing to provide an adequate system of education, New Mexico District Court Judge Sarah Singleton also found the state failed to provide proper funding for programs and services for those students to learn.
The order required New Mexico to reform schools to ensure these students are college and career ready and fix the inequities they face in public education.
At Taos Pueblo Wednesday, lawmakers on the interim Indian Affairs Committee heard from state education officials, attorneys and researchers on their views of what’s needed to provide an equal education to disabled, low-income, English learning and Native American students.
While the state’s outlook was rosier than four other presentations, there was agreement that many of the issues identified in the landmark case, Martinez-Yazzie vs. The State of New Mexico, remain.
Even as “once-in-history” money flows from the state’s coffers from oil and gas revenues, the state is still failing to meet the needs of Native American students, said Candice Castillo, a deputy secretary at New Mexico’s Public Education Department.
“Native children continue to suffer from deep educational disparities, language loss, and poor life outcomes,” Castillo said.
Attorneys representing the plaintiffs in Yazzie-Martinez said the state is failing to present a plan for making systemic changes, is not enforcing how districts spend money and is facing staffing shortages of its own.
“There’s a lot more work that the state has to do to comply with the order,” said Melissa Candelaria (San Felipe), the education director for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
Regis Pecos (Cochiti), the chair of the Tribal Education Alliance – a think tank researching and advocating for reform for Pueblo and tribal students – said the current actions have been “piecemeal.”
He advocated for establishing a Tribal Education Trust Fund, which supporters view could sustain funding for any reform.
In the past legislative session, Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia) agreed to pull the bill to create a fund of $50 million, telling New Mexico In Depth, he’d ask for a larger amount in the 2024 session.
Pecos also urged adoption of the Tribal Remedy Framework, which has support from 19 Pueblos, Apache Nations and the Navajo Nation.
The plan, created by tribal members and Native American education experts, would be an attempt to reverse the product of racist policies that placed Native children in boarding schools to eradicate Indigenous language and culture.
Pecos said the trust fund would treat tribally-run schools as local education education agencies, similar in structure to local school districts.
“Because unless we make that investment, we’re not going to affect the governance of public schools K-12. Because there’s so few of us represented on local school boards, to then hold them accountable,” he said.
New blood at PED
Since the order was handed down five years ago, five secretaries have run the state’s public education department. The agency currently has a 24% vacancy rate, according to the New Mexico Sunshine Portal.
Under secretary Arsenio Romero, appointed in May, is in the wave of new people that are coming into the agency’s top spots.
Two of the newly minted deputy secretaries presented to the committee, the first being Castillo, the other was KatieAnn Juanico (Acoma) who oversees the Indian Education Program, Indigenous language and culture projects.
Castillo outlined the four key areas she expects the public education department to focus on: building the “educator ecosystem;” emphasizing student’s social, emotional and physical health; creating options for after high school and having more community support for programs.
More than 40,000 students in New Mexico public schools are Native American, just over 12% of all students statewide. However, only 3% public school teachers are Native American and there have been only small gains to hire more.
Juanico noted that 163 of the 728 Native American teachers received 520 certificates, which are issued by Pueblos and tribes to indicate fluency in their native languages but also culture and values.
State education officials completed 15 tribal visits, Juanico told the committee, with another seven scheduled through November.
Many of the Pueblo’s needs for education support from the state remain the same, Junaico said. She asked lawmakers to consider three recommendations for the 2024 session.
The first is multi-year funding, allowing for grants that can continue beyond two years.
In the second request, she asked for more funds to support the salaries of 163 teachers with their certificates in Indigenous languages and culture – which is being paid for with carryover funds.
Finally, she said there would be more requests for capital outlay funding on Native libraries, and other programs such as childhood centers.
Action in Yazzie-Martinez not off the table
Candelaria said that after two years of discovery, including reviewing thousands of documents and deposing 17 of state public education leadership staff, the plaintiffs made three key findings.
First, she said, the state failed to adequately plan how to enact reforms, noting the public education department has still not released a comprehensive education plan, which was promised in September 2022.
She said the state is watching how increased funds are spent, and asked lawmakers to consider establishing a better mechanism for tracking dollars to programs and services for students.
“PED doesn’t exercise its authority over districts to ensure funding is spent on the students who generate it,” Candelaria said.
She said PED’s lack of capacity continues “to be a barrier,” noting that of the 17 staff who were deposed, all but one have left the agency.
Attorneys for the Yazzie-Martinez parties said they are weighing their options for enforcing the order, possibly bringing the case before the court again.
New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez announced in September that his office would resume control of the case.
“We are eager to see where this goes,” Candelaria said about Torrez resuming control. “We’ll see how we can move the case along and to get the state to full compliance with the court’s order.”
Still little data under questions
New Mexico public education officials often had little additional data to offer under questions from Sen. Bill Soules (D-Las Cruces), the long-time chair of the Senate Education Committee.
Three of the questions he directed at the agency – asking about $2 million in spending on a specific training program, how many Native American members sit on school boards across the state, and how many Pueblos have education-specific programs – were all met with the same response:
“I don’t have the exact numbers for that,” Castillo and Juanico said to the different questions.
Soules also asked for clarifications on what “the goal line” looks like for equitable education.
Anja Rudiger with the Tribal Education Alliance replied that “closing the gap” between Native students and their peers on proficiency rates, graduation rates should be a goal.
Candelaria agreed, but cautioned that standardized tests were not culturally relevant or the best measure for multilingual and multicultural goals.
Soules said the data is clear that much of academic achievement is rooted in the community’s health, which are policies and programs outside of the public education department’s purview.
“We have huge amounts of new money,” Soules said. “We are a wealthy state that allows half of our people to live in poverty, and we let it happen. This is just reflective of that, that very central problem we’ve got in a state right now.”
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This story was updated Monday, Oct. 23, 2023 at 3:15 p.m. to correctly reflect Deputy Secretary KatieAnn Juanico is from Acoma Pueblo.
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