New Mexico’s Education Reform Plan Presented to Tribal Leaders
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The plan is still in its draft form, but leaders in New Mexico claim that it brings them one step closer to fulfilling a judge’s order to reform public education statewide.
However, advocates are seeking a greater balance than the current top-down approach. They argue that the creation of the education plan should involve more back-and-forth and should consider the input of a variety of stakeholders. These advocates continue to make their case by questioning top state officials, as part of the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit that initially prompted the need for reform.
The plan is a direct response to the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez judgment, which exposed a history of failures by the state government in providing adequate education for the majority of public school students. As a result, the court ordered New Mexico to fix the system.
Recently, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham presented key aspects of the proposal to Native American leaders at the 2022 State Tribal Leadership Summit held at Sandia Casino. She emphasized that every facet of government must acknowledge past failures and play a role in rectifying the broken system. The governor highlighted the need to invest in educational opportunities that begin within each sovereign nation, stating that failing to do so would discriminate against the educators who can make a difference, not only in the classroom but also in every aspect of every student and family’s life throughout the state.
The state is preparing for a significant overhaul to address the impacts of "decades of neglect and underfunding" on various groups, including individuals with disabilities, English language learners, Native Americans, and students from low-income families, as outlined in an action report.
While the state’s 55-page follow-up document outlines several measures taken to comply with the court’s order, advocates for education reform believe that more voices need to be included. They see this process as an opportunity to involve additional stakeholders in shaping the present and future of education.
Regis Pecos, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and a strong advocate for tribal education reform, expressed optimism about the state’s plan. However, he noticed shortcomings in the plan’s creation process, which only exacerbate the existing problems that the state is attempting to solve.
Pecos specifically highlighted the incomplete integration of the Tribal Remedy Framework within the state’s plan. The Tribal Remedy Framework, developed by Indigenous educators at the University of New Mexico’s Native American Budget and Policy Institute, provides a potential solution to the issues highlighted in the Yazzie-Martinez case. According to Pecos, there is still resistance from the Public Education Department and the Legislative Finance Committee. He believes that if there was better alignment, such pushback would not occur and all parties involved would be on the same page.
The inclusion of the Tribal Remedy Framework in the state’s education reform plan is an ongoing process, partially due to various pieces of legislation advocated for and signed into law by supporters. Judy Robinson, a spokesperson for the Public Education Department, listed several initiatives from the framework that have been incorporated into the action plan. These include funding for traditional language preservation, revised social studies standards, culturally relevant curriculum development, additional funds for the Indian Education Fund, and support for tribal libraries.
However, the implementation of many of these initiatives, particularly those requiring funding for programs and libraries, necessitated the efforts of individuals like Pecos and Representative Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) to advocate for legislation and appropriation at the Roundhouse.
During the 2022 legislative session, Lente, another prominent supporter of the framework, sponsored and passed bills such as the one aimed at increasing pay for traditional language teachers. He acknowledges the role the Legislature must play in education reform but finds it perplexing that certain widely accepted norms, such as improving schools for children, remain politically contentious.
Lente stated, "It’s a lengthy process. It’s more political than I had anticipated. With a Democratic majority House, Democratic majority Senate, and Democratic governor, I thought it would be a straightforward process. However, it has been much more of a struggle. That’s just politics."
Notably, none of the authors of the Tribal Remedy Framework were involved in the creation of the state’s plan.
Lente believes that granting local control is crucial. He advocates for allowing local communities to be the creators, authors, and founders of education systems that will improve student outcomes. He emphasizes the importance of striking a balance between Western ideas and traditional teachings, stating that their own people are best suited to achieve this balance.
Pecos has expressed his desire to see a strong investment in teacher programs at the University of New Mexico (UNM) and tribal colleges as part of the state’s action plan. These programs aim to create a pipeline to bring more Native American teachers into schools with a high population of Native students.
Pecos believes that the current plan lacks a fundamental connection with the recommendations and needs of the Navajo, Apache, Mescalero, and the 19 pueblos communities. These communities have provided specific suggestions for policy changes, program development, statutory amendments, and appropriations, which have been transformed into the tribal remedy framework.
The state’s plan acknowledges the significance of the teacher pipeline by emphasizing that students perform better when their educators have strong connections to the community they serve.
According to the Southwest Outreach Academic Research Evaluation and Policy Center at New Mexico State University, teacher vacancies have doubled within a year, reaching over 1,000 vacancies last year.
Teacher diversity gaps highlight the need to recruit new teachers who better represent the students they serve.
During the process, Lashawna Tso (Diné) served as the assistant secretary of the state’s Indian Education Department and oversaw aspects of the report. However, Tso has recently left her position to become the executive director of the Navajo Nation’s Washington D.C. office.
Tso’s departure raises concerns about the turnover in leadership at the Department of Education (PED). Melissa Candelaria, a lawyer with the New Mexico Center for Law and Poverty, which represents the Yazzie group in the lawsuit, stated that her office has deposed six high-level employees at the PED. Although she couldn’t disclose specific details about the depositions, she noted that many of these individuals have left for other jobs.
Pecos is encouraged by PED Secretary Kurt Steinhaus’ commitment to staying for the long haul. However, he expresses concern that the turnover at the department may hinder reform efforts, as new employees will have to start from scratch when assuming leadership positions.
Steinhaus is currently presenting the plan to communities and tribal leaders. He hosted the first presentation last week and will hold another listening session in the following week. Public education leaders are seeking input on the plan from community leaders and will accept comments until June 17.
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