A raft of bills targeting educational inequality soldiers forward in the Legislature, encouraging proponents who hope the state is ready to fulfill its responsibility to educate all New Mexican students.
In direct response to the mandates handed down by late state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton in the landmark 2018 Yazzie/Martinez case, the proposed legislation aims to address pitfalls hampering Native youth.
The proposals' goals include wrestling control from the state Public Education Department and empowering tribal education departments to apply culturally and linguistically relevant teaching throughout schools while financing programs to hire more Native teachers. Furthermore, by developing broadband access, investing in tribal libraries and legitimizing Indigenous languages, the legislation aims to fill the opportunity gaps still haunting New Mexico schools.
This collective of bills saw early progress in the House Education Committee, with do-pass recommendations on House Bills 84, 85 and 86, pushing them into the House Appropriations and Finance Committee. A final piece of legislation, HB 87, awaits debate in the education committee.
Though advocates remain optimistic, similar legislation in 2019 and 2020 encountered funding challenges. "As I've been told in the past two years in a row, there's just no money to handle these types of issues," Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo and the four bills' sponsor, tells SFR.
Lente says advocates and his team worked with the Legislative Finance Committee to secure funding through a line item in the Public Education Department's budget.
The LFC also issued revised findings regarding the landmark education lawsuit last month, and they reinforce the need for more precise legislation to topple barriers that, taken together, reflect the dark and painful history of Native education in New Mexico.
Decades of negotiation between tribal communities, Native educators and Indigenous leaders has culminated in a reimagining of public education structures. A document developed with tribal leaders and education experts informing the goals of the legislation, called the "tribal remedy framework," outlines how the state should build capacity for culturally relevant teaching and transform the state's education governance to better support at-risk students.
With endorsements from New Mexico's 23 tribes, the plan addresses longstanding inequalities that left at-risk students unprepared for college and careers. Though much of the framework's focus is intended to support Native students, other vulnerable groups, such as English Language learners, students with disabilities and low-income students, stand to benefit from the wide-reaching proposals.
The effort to give tribal education departments greater say—by restoring language autonomy and more—is outlined by HB 85.
"We've had a dearth of educational infrastructure in our Native American communities since…we've been experiencing mainstream society. With Rep. Lente, we've been trying to uplift tribal libraries as this kind of educational hub in our tribal communities," explains Jasmine Yepa, a policy analyst at the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty.
These structures lacked priority in the eyes of PED in decades past, which has contributed to the current achievement gap between Native students and their non-Native peers, says Regis Pecos, co-founder of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School and former governor of Cochiti Pueblo.
Some of the funding from HB 85, if awarded, would help train and certify Native language teachers in tribal communities—a move Pecos dignifies as an effort to stop the erasure of Indigenous culture.
Recruiting and training more Native educators, through appropriations in HB 87, addresses the lack of representation Indigenous students have come to expect in schools.
"It works when we specifically target people and give them money to become teachers and increase their capacity," says Faith Rosetta, Santa Fe Indian School's high school principal. "If you are a Native American student who has had a pretty challenging experience in school, where you weren't represented in school…why would you feel compelled to join that system?"
For those in rural areas, limited infrastructure has stymied access to the internet. Those who are closer to cities can more easily connect to existing fiber optic backbones, says Kimball Sekaquaptewa, chief technology director at the Santa Fe Indian School.
Part of the appropriations in HB 86 would allocate funding for a project to expand internet accessibility in Native communities.
"The broadband included in this bill has a middle mile goal to connect tribes and cities and really Northern New Mexico to Albuquerque," Sekaquaptewa tells SFR. "Even though this is a tribal bill, this is a statewide benefit."
The infrastructure projects also include plans to develop education networks, which act as hubs for critical services such as cybersecurity and training of technology professionals, supporters say.
"This legislation allows us to create an exchange point at Santa Fe Indian School," Sekaquaptewa says. "We can install some fiber security gateway equipment. Especially right now in COVID, malicious attacks and threats are skyrocketing, because the hackers are really taking advantage of this switch to remote life."
The same bill would appropriate money for tribal libraries.
Most of New Mexico's 19 tribal libraries are housed in buildings that are not meant for libraries, says Janice Kowemy, director of Laguna Public Library, though often these spaces are indispensable to the communities they serve, providing technology, internet and educational resources which are sometimes scarce in tribal areas.
Despite the critical value of these community spaces, "We weren't considered that essential yet, so we needed to figure out another way to get funding," Kowemy tells SFR. In 2018, tribal leaders and education advocates gathered at the Pueblo Convocation on Education to hash out the costs to renovate education centers in each tribal community. Those recommended appropriations are outlined in HB 86.
Cultural and linguistic programs offered in these community education hubs would see funding increases from another piece of proposed legislation. HB 84, "is at the heart of the paradigm shift that we seek," says Pecos. "This is really an important part in furthering the legitimacy of Native language programs, Native language teachers and treating them equally in terms of the resources necessary to fully implement Native language programs."
Lente's proposals would allow tribal education departments to use funds to teach Native languages and other methods.
Pecos warns: "If we don't respond…we will contribute to perpetuating what we otherwise know is part of our demise. And I don't believe we can afford that."