A bill to establish a trust fund for tribal education unanimously passed the House on Thursday, but an amendment to House Bill 134 removing its request for a $100 million appropriation makes the dollar amount the trust fund would receive unclear.
The anticipated initial funding, according to bill sponsor Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, comes from the House budget, or House Bill 2, recommendation of $50 million, but he said during Thursday’s debate that he remains hopeful the Senate will allocate another $50 million.
“We know that we’ve transparently gone through the Legislative Finance Committee process, to the point where HB2 is now on the Senate side,” Lente said. “The hopefulness is that somewhere down the line we would get to $100 million.”
While the bill had called for a tribally-led task force to develop a formula for disbursing the funds across New Mexico’s 23 tribes, nations and pueblos, the House-adopted version would instead lean on tribal leaders directly creating the formula together, with the Public Education Department serving as a facilitator.
“Tribes and the Public Education Department have to engage in a process of consultation, collaboration and communication to achieve a unanimous consensus,” Lente said. “This is really at the heart and follows what the State-Tribal Collaboration Act is all about in existing law.”
Additionally, the amended bill says Indigenous peacemakers may be appointed if there is a dispute among tribal nations over the disbursement formula. The formula must be finalized by June 1, 2025, in time for its first distribution to the tribes, the bill says.
Rep. Wonda Johnson, D-Rehoboth, asked Lente whether the bill had the support of all the stakeholders, as representatives from the Navajo Nation previously took issue with language on task force members. Lente affirmed that the Navajo Nation Council has since passed a resolution supporting the bill, with the stipulation of amending the bill to fairly represent the Navajo Nation’s larger population.
“The support has always been there,” Lente responded. “The practice of how we distribute is where they had to figure it out…Since Friday, after going to the [House] Appropriations Committee, all the tribes have come together to endorse the bill.”
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, D-Gallup, asked Lente how the bill ensures the Navajo Nation would receive equitable funding, and Lente explained that the distribution formula will look at the specific needs within each tribe, as well as factoring in each tribe’s student population. He also said tribes can use funds for students at schools of any designation, including tribally-controlled, Bureau of Indian Affairs-run schools and other public and charter schools.
“I’m glad to hear that, because we have so many different designations of schools, and sometimes it’s hard to get our arms around how many we actually have in student population, at least in my area,” Lundstrom said.
Lente noted the bill would affect all of New Mexico’s estimated 48,000 Native students, the vast majority of them attending public school districts.
Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena, said she took issue with the focus on funding schools on tribal lands when many Native students attend public school districts.
“I am concerned about my Native American students who attend Magdalena [Public Schools], that live in Magdalena, that deserve as much there as if they lived on tribal lands,” Armstrong said.
Lente responded that the discretion of trust fund spending will ultimately be up to the tribes, and that tribes can establish educational programs accessible to Native students attending schools away from tribal lands, noting an online language program as an example.
Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, called the bill an “unprecedented effort” to remedy historic abuse of Indigenous children in the public education system, noting the importance of the bill as a response to the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling that New Mexico should do more to provide marginalized students with a sufficient education.
“It took a lawsuit decided in 2018 to bring to our attention that in my time, in the time of my children, my grandchildren, in our time as members of this body, that such injustices and inequities continue,” Allison said. “It took my Navajo sister, Wilhelmina Yazzie, on behalf of her children, that in America, in our Land of Enchantment, that it was time for change…This legislation is the beginning of that change.”
The bill, which passed 68-0, now moves to the Senate.