The last few days of the legislative session blurred by in a hectic dash towards the finish line. In the midst of the final rounds of hearings in the House and Senate on Friday, SFR spoke with Victoria Tafoya of Transform Education NM about how the Legislature dealt with the demands from the judge on the Yazzie Martinez lawsuit, which alleged that the state has failed to provide equitable education to students from low-income, English language learner and Native American backgrounds, as well as to students with disabilities.
SFR: How was Transform Education involved in policy initiatives this session?
VT: We started by having conversations with multiple stakeholders who felt that this lawsuit was the perfect opportunity for action moving forward, and from there we established steering committees and an educational platform through which we considered potential legislation that we could propose during the session. And so this proactive approach was an attempt to support the Public Education Department and our legislators in creation of policy that, from the perspective of advocates and education professionals in the field, we felt would meet the requirements and outcomes that the judge was looking for.
What was the coalition hoping to see from the Legislature?
What we would most like to see is progress in the areas of funding for pre-K, transportation issues, rural isolation issues and support for educators, so all of these issues that surfaced in the judge's findings we of course hoped would influence SB 1 and the other budget bills. As mentioned in the lawsuit, we know that fully funding pre-K is extremely important, and that there is inadequate support for multi-cultural education in the state.
We will have to do an analysis … so I can't say definitely what position the coalition will take on the policies that come out of this legislative session. What I can say is that the outcomes certainly will not be all that we expected or hoped for, but it was a good start.
HB 5 and SB 1 were the two biggest educational budget bills this session. Do you think that these two bills adequately address the issues brought up in the case?
One thing we'd hoped was that the at-risk factor would be put at .366 [multiplier in the state funding formula]. That number comes with research that was done to asses what school districts would need to be able to provide the support necessary for at-risk students in the state of New Mexico. We hoped that the Legislature would use income criteria from the free and reduced lunch program to create these budget recommendations, which they did not do. …
We also hoped for an increase in bilingual and multi-cultural units to 1.0 [multiplier], and actually the PED was able to include it as a .6 in their budget recommendation. And so again, it's a wonderful start to the considerations of a more appropriate and grander scale for bilingual education in New Mexico, but I can say that I personally am disappointed that more of the specific measures around multi-cultural education did not make it very far. …
I don't think early childhood education will get the funding it needs and that's a big disappointment. When it comes to measures regarding extended learning and K-5 Plus included in the big budget bills, which again were our opportunity to meet sufficiency standards required by the case, we remain concerned about the level of implementation that school districts will be able to move forth because its so restrictive in the way the language reads in the bill right now.
I think that we are generally pleased, though, that education received so much attention this session.
Why do you think some people still don't fully understand the importance of multi-cultural education?
This is a question that I often reflect upon because I'm a native New Mexican. My story is of the families that had been here for generations that experienced language trauma because of being told not to speak our native languages, and being reprimanded for speaking our language in school. A grandmother of mine was sent to a boarding school and lost her language completely. All of that, I think, contributes to our New Mexico story. For me, this history is what drives me to educate children and to ensure that language and bilingualism is seen as an asset in communities, and not as a deficit. … I think we need to again reflect on the past and then develop a vision for how investing in bilingual education now is an investment in our culture and in our economy.
What's the case for bilingualism as an economic asset?
If you can speak Spanish, you can communicate with 75 percent of the world's population. Economically, we could partner more with our neighbors. Bilingualism creates natural opportunities for New Mexico when corporations think that the state has this large group of bilinguals that they can tap for their skills to support business development.
In your opinion, where does the state stand now in supporting Indigenous education and making up for some of the historical traumas of the past?
Indigenous education is the work of partnerships between our tribal communities and our policymakers, and so for a school that resides within a tribal community, it is really about looking at the needs and expectations of Indigenous communities, first and foremost. I would hope that our policymakers would also have the foresight to ask these questions. …
One bill that that really thoughtfully looked at the needs of our tribal communities and considered the spectrum of support needed for institutions of higher education to improve outcomes for American Indian children was HB 516, the American Indian Education Outcomes Act. But that bill didn't move forth.
The Indian Education Act, which has been on the books since 1978, was huge in that it acknowledges community efforts and needs, but has it never really been enforced or given funding and support needed to make it effective. When I worked for Rio Rancho Public Schools, for instance, I was the executive director of federal bilingual and Native American programs. … Oftentimes, as the director of the program, we didn't have access to state funding for the Indian Education Act.
And so I question often: How can advocates, how can policy makers, how can others support our Indigenous communities in their work? Coming out of this session, that is really one of the big questions we are left with.