For eight months, the state post charged with representing the educational needs of Native American children has been vacant—a fact critics say constitutes serious neglect.

Since Gov. Susana Martinez took office a year ago, her administration has never appointed a permanent assistant secretary in the Indian Education Division of the Public Education Department. Martinez did appoint an interim assistant secretary, Barbara Alvarez, but Alvarez resigned that position in May 2011. (She's now a policy analyst with the state Indian Affairs Department and declined to comment for this story.) Since then, the post has been vacant, despite the fact that it's the head position in the division dedicated to education of the state's Native American children.

"The conduit to communication is void between the Native American community and the Public Education Department," state Rep. Ray Begaye, D-San Juan, tells SFR.

The assistant secretary of Indian education is the person responsible for ensuring the state complies with the Indian Education Act, legislation passed in 2003 to ensure that Native Americans living on both tribal and nontribal lands have equal opportunities to achieve educational success. The assistant secretary is supposed to act as a liaison between the state and tribal governments and consult with the latter about new laws and regulations that affect Native American education. He or she is also supposed to present such rules to the tribal governments at semi-annual meetings, also mandated by law, with the state. Martinez did hold a tribal summit in August, but no assistant secretary was there to represent the Indian Education Division.

"To leave the Assistant Secretary for Indian Education not wise nor effective, since the purpose of the [Indian Educaton Act] is ignored and Native education, once again, is relegated to the level of invisibility and obscurity," Larry Emerson, a member of the state Indian Education Advisory Council representing the Navajo Nation, writes SFR in an email.

The lack of an assistant secretary translates into a lack of input from Native Americans in educational policy decisions, Begaye says. Martinez and Education Secretary-designate Hanna Skandera's education reform agenda for the current legislative session includes a ban on social promotion—which Begaye attempted to challenge with a memorial calling for more research first [news, Jan. 25: "Social Demotion"]. Conducting research on educational strategies appropriate for Native American children is one of the assistant secretary's duties, according to state statute. In addition, Skandera is pushing for merit-based teacher pay that Begaye says would encourage teaching to standardized tests, which he believes are culturally biased against Native Americans.

"This whole plan from under PED is concentrated in the white picket fence of our western culture," Begaye says. "That may paint a beautiful picture, but there are segments of our student population that are the most challenging and the most forgotten in public education, and that's our Native American children."

PED spokesman Larry Behrens declined to comment on Alvarez' departure, but writes SFR in an email that PED will appoint a permanent assistant secretary "in the very near future, specifically in the next few weeks."
"It's simply not good enough to find someone to just simply fill the position," Behrens writes. "The children of New Mexico deserve to have the right person fill the position."

But Begaye says there was no more than a month-long vacancy in the assistant secretary position during the administration of former Gov. Bill Richardson, and he suggests that the Martinez administration is attempting, so far without success, to find a Republican Native American to put in place. Begaye says he has yet to see evidence that Skandera appreciates the unique educational needs of Native American children.

"I don't think she was ready for this," Begaye says. "Whether [Native American education] is not her priority, that's yet to be seen. But so far, I haven't seen it."

Begaye arranged a meeting with Skandera to discuss his concerns, which was supposed to take place on Dec. 28. He drove to Santa Fe from his home in Shiprock and spent two days in town preparing a nine-page report outlining his concerns. Skandera canceled the meeting with only a few hours' notice. Behrens says Skandera canceled to "concentrate on the upcoming release of school grades" under the new A-F rating system. As Behrens also points out, the two did get together subsequently, in Santa Fe on Jan. 12. But Begaye says he and Skandera just "talked in circles."

"We've heard it before, promises made and promises broken from the past," Begaye says.

Jenny Rodgers, a Gallup-based member of the Indian Education Advisory Council, also tells SFR that, without an assistant secretary leading the Indian Education Division, educational opportunities tend to bypass Native American students, who "do not do well in the New Mexico school system." In reading proficiency scores for the 2010-2011 school year, Native Americans scored below any other ethnic group: 35 percent of them were proficient, compared to 67 percent of Anglo students and 44 percent of Hispanic students. And since more than one in 10 of the state's public elementary and secondary school students are Native American, it's a segment of the population that New Mexico can't afford to neglect.

"We have to have a qualified individual within the assistant secretary for Indian Education position to advocate and support issues of concern for native students," Rodgers writes SFR in an email.

In his report, Begaye calls the lack of Native American input in educational policy decision-making "downright degrading" and doesn't hesitate to blame the Martinez administration for the current state of the Indian Education Division.

"I really have no one to blame except the leadership that set the path for this office, and, in reality, did a poor job," the report states.