Tribal Education Funding Makes Progress

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Three bills that would bolster the state’s 23 Native American tribes’ ability to educate their own children cleared their first legislative committee this week.

The House Education Committee’s passage of House Bills 8788 and 90, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, never was much in doubt.

With a little over two weeks left in the 30-day session, the question is whether beefed-up money for tribal education contained in the bills will make it into the $8.5 billion state budget. 

And whether the Legislature will change how New Mexico distributes money to tribes from one-off grants that require applying for the money each year to an automatic year-over-year appropriation — called recurring in statehouse lingo.

Lente explained to his legislative colleagues during Monday’s committee meeting that the legislation before them was foundational to the Tribal Remedy Framework, which details  education reform priorities sought by the state’s 23 tribal nations. 

In recent years tribes have demanded more control over educating their own children. They’re supported by the 2018 landmark Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico court ruling that found New Mexico negligent in providing a sufficient education to at-risk students, which includes Indigenous students.

Indigenous students, who make up about 34,000, or 11% of New Mexico’s K-12 student population, lag behind their New Mexico peers in reading, math, high school graduation and college enrollment. The Yazzie/Martinez decision suggested those outcomes mostly stem from decades of underspending and neglect by New Mexico, shattering the perception that blame rests on children and their families instead of on a systemic failure.

The court ruling wasn’t the first to name systemic or institutional causes for low educational outcomes for Indigenous students. From the 1960s on, report after report has documented the dismal education afforded to the state’s Native American communities. 

The Kennedy Report of 1969, a federal review of indigenous education, acknowledged the classroom was a tool of assimilation for indigenous children for much of this country’s history.

Then there was 1991’s Indian Nations at Risk report by the U.S. Department of Education. And a 2006 New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee report that identified challenges and recommended solutions, followed by a 2010 report commissioned by the state Public Education Department titled Indian Education In New Mexico, 2025.  

Conroy Chino, lobbyist for the Pueblos of Acoma and Taos, echoed Lente in emphasizing the bills’ importance during the portion of the meeting when lawmakers sought comments from the public.

The three measures would build up tribal education departments. “And this can’t happen without funding,” Chino said.

According to legislative analyses, HB 87 would appropriate $20 million into the state’s Indian Education Fund — more than the $5.25 million appropriated in fiscal year 2022 — and would require at least 70% of that money to go directly to tribes.  Equally important, Lente said, was changing how money is distributed from one-off annual grants that require extra work to automatic funding year-in, year-out.

Jeremy Oyenque, the tribal education director for Santa Clara Pueblo, spoke from first-hand experience of how “cumbersome” it is to apply for grants each year for educational dollars and to do it again the next year.

What happens in many cases, Lente said Tuesday in an interview with New Mexico In Depth, is that the grants aren’t received by the tribes until well into the state’s fiscal year, giving too little time to spend all the money. Whatever is unspent returns to the state, and tribes have to apply again for the education dollars for the next fiscal year. 

Chino and Oyenque were just two of more than a dozen people who spoke in favor of the bills, many of them representing the state’s tribal nations.

Bettina Sandoval, Director of the Education/Training Vision for the Taos Pueblo, told lawmakers the legislation, if passed, would allow tribes to “better target those funds for student needs.”

“This will narrow the achievement gap because it will better provide us with resources so we’re equipped to address needs of our children at the community level,” she told the lawmakers during the virtual meeting. “Staff know our students the best. They have the experience of working in tribal communities.”

According to a fiscal impact report from the Legislative Finance Committee, the Legislature’s budget arm, HB88 would appropriate an additional $21.5 million from the general fund to the Indian Education Fund, with specific spending directed as such:

• $5.75 million for tribal education departments to build capacity and develop plans;

• $5.75 million for tribal libraries’ educational operations; 

• $10 million for tribal education departments to provide extended learning and Native language programs. 

fiscal impact report for HB90 says it would appropriate $29.6 million from the general fund to four state colleges and three tribal colleges for 53 initiatives in eight areas to comply with the court’s rulings in the consolidated landmark 2018 education lawsuit.

One of the speakers in support of the legislation during the committee hearing Monday, Glenabah Martinez, a University of New Mexico professor and director of the Institute for American Indian Education, said the state is one of the first two states to have an Indian Education Act. That law was passed in 2003 and updated in 2019.

“We have stood as an example” for others looking to create their own Indian Education Acts, she told the committee.  “Now we should take a step forward and let’s fully implement it.”

A longstanding critique by New Mexico’s tribal representatives is that the state has never fully funded the Indian Education Act or tried to achieve its goals.

Between House bills 87 and 88, Lente was asking for $41.5 million in the state budget. The state spending plan that emerged Tuesday out of the House budget committee included $28 million for the Indian Education Fund.“It’s better than we’ve been in the past,” Lente said. “Personally, I am good to see the needle moving”.

He was less pleased, however, with the language about how $15 million of that total would be divvied up. The language calls for distribution to more recipients than his bills contemplate and which he worries will dilute the impact of that education money on tribes. 

He’ll try to change that language as the budget bill moves through the Legislature and ensure the $28 million earmarked for the Indian Education Fund stays at that level, he said. 

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Lente said.

This story was originally published by New Mexico In Depth

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