A coalition of educators, advocates, and parents is moving fast to compile a slate of proposals to transform New Mexico's education system in light of a court ruling in July that the state's schools systematically violate students' constitutional right to a sufficient education.
Witnesses and litigators for the plaintiffs in the long-running state District Court case say the reforms come down to two critical issues: More funding for resources, including faculty and staff hires, and a renewed focus on culturally appropriate education for Hispanic, Native American, and English language learners, all of whom disproportionately come from low-income families.
On a more fundamental level, reformers say, the changes are about reversing a long legacy of cultural colonization that has harmed students for over a century—a history thrown into sharp relief last year when the state's outgoing education secretary, Christopher Ruszkowski, warmly referred to "going west" and "Manifest Destiny" as fundamental principles of the United States during a speech.
Native American students have suffered in particular since New Mexico came under the authority of the United States government over a century ago, according to Regis Pecos, a member of the Cochiti Pueblo who testified as an expert witness during the trial last summer. He is now a member of Transform Education NM, the coalition drafting proposed reforms to present to legislators ahead of next year's session, and board member for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty, which took the case to court.
"In looking at the past to make sense of the challenges in the present context, and how we respond, this defines what happens in the future," Pecos tells SFR.
He recounts the federally mandated separation of Indigenous children into boarding schools that began in 1890, and then the forced integration policy that replaced the boarding school approach in the early 20th century, as reasons why Native students continue to be underserved by curricula that has never been tailored to their educational and social development. Funding from the federal government in lieu of property taxes from homes on reservations has also not been appropriately allocated to serve Native children in public schools, he adds.
"One of the legacies of that time is that those [Native American generations], when they became child bearing age, they consciously decided that they would not teach their own children the most precious of gifts, the gift of our creator, language, which is connected to our identities and provides for the fundamental means of finding purpose and meaning in life," Pecos says.
Even before the July ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, two education summits took place in Albuquerque to gather input from education experts and community members, according to Carmen Lopez, executive director of College Horizons, an organization that supports the higher education of Native American students. The purpose of the meetings was to drive a grassroots conversation about what an education system crafted by New Mexicans, for New Mexican students, would look like in practice.
"Often times what happens here in New Mexico is we've had outside interests brought in to put on top of [our] children a product that was created for different children in different states with different needs," Lopez tells SFR. "And this is the whole argument: Whether we are Indigenous, or from a Hispanic background, that's been at the heart of this."
Another witness for the plaintiff was Santa Fe Public Schools superintendent Veronica Garcia, who testified on behalf of the plaintiff. Of about 13,400 total students in Santa Fe public schools, about 300 are Native American and 3,000 are English language learners.
"I hope we see increased funding that helps address our teacher shortage, that will shore up our program funding for multicultural education, and I hope we see larger investments in teacher salaries and early education," Garcia tells SFR.
Emma Jones, an organizer with the Learning Alliance and a member of Transform Education NM, considers reforms that put language, history, and the cultural characteristics of New Mexico’s students to be the “hamburger buns” that should hold together any package of reforms that prioritize “a vast multicultural system of education.”
The inside of the metaphorical burger, Jones says, is funding. A parent of a 5th grader in Albuquerque, her son's teachers routinely ask parents to donate reams of computer paper because the school cannot provide the adequate supplies. Such requests represent the tip of the underfunding iceberg, she says.
"Right now we have a big teacher shortage, and not enough teachers are culturally competent or stick around or look like their students, so a lot of it is teacher training and getting them interested in becoming teachers and staying here in the state," Jones says.
A draft of proposed reforms assembled by the coalition, which it plans to make public next week, suggests the state raise teacher starting salaries in a three-tiered approach to $45,000/$55,000/$65,000, based on experience and on salary levels in neighboring states. Universal pre-kindergarten, more enriching summer programming, and adequate staffing of nurses, social workers and counselors are other requests.
The draft also recommends adjusting the index for identifying at-risk students so that it encompasses more students and opens schools up for greater state funding, restoring baseline funding for schools to at least 2008 levels (adjusted for inflation), and putting up more money for transportation, bilingual instruction and technological resources in rural schools.
The coalition has not "costed out" its proposal, says Maria Archuleta, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. Messages to Legislative Education Study Committee chair, Sen. Mimi Stewart (D-Bernalillo) were not returned by publication time.
But the incoming administration of Governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is still assembling her cabinet, offers some hope that the state's executive branch will be amenable to any legislative reforms that might land on her desk. In a conversation with SFR before her election, Lujan Grisham listed a "billion dollar" need in the state's education system as a priority for her administration.
The state has until April to present pro tem District Judge Sarah Singleton with its proposal for overhauling New Mexico's education system, who is expected to rule whether or not the reforms adequately satisfy students' constitutional right to a sufficient education.
Pecos says more funding won't count for much if the system is not transformed wholesale.
"If we put more money into the same structures that marginalize all elements of the Indian Education Act [and that] marginalize culture and history, [this victory] will be hollow because nothing significant will have changed."