Associated Press / Report for America
SANTA FE, N.M. — Indian education advocates say state officials are finally starting to speak their language.
That's not an Indigenous language — many of which are spoken by New Mexico's 23 tribes — but rather a common vocabulary for sweeping education reform outlined by tribal governments in a document called the "tribal remedy framework," last updated in 2019, which calls for more dollars and autonomy in how they are spent.
Earlier this month, Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration mentioned the tribal remedy framework in a line item of its budget request to the state legislature for lawmakers to consider in the coming months.
"It is at least the beginnings of both hopeful and prayerful optimism that we are at least starting to see an alignment. But the devil is in the details," says fellow education advocate Regis Pecos, co-founder of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School and former governor of Cochiti Pueblo.
Those details will be hashed out in negotiations during the coming legislative session. The most contentious questions are how much to spend on Indigenous education programs, who will control the funding and what specific needs will be targeted.
The pandemic has laid bare the inequitable infrastructure that initially left half of the Native American youth in some school districts without internet.
The crisis came as Native American youth were already lagging behind their peers. Younger students trail in reading and math — around 20 percent third-grade proficiency compared to 30 percent proficiency of all third graders in 2019. Only 69 percent of Indigenous high school students graduate within 4 years. That's improved over the past ten years, but is still below the state average, which is among the lowest in the country.
The achievement gap is largely a function of state leaders' spending priorities, according to advocates backed by a series of state and federal court rulings reached or reaffirmed in 2020.
State courts have found that education funding for at-risk students, including Native Americans, is constitutionally deficient. Lujan Grisham tried to have the suit tossed last year, but was denied. Last November, another ruling found that funding of capital projects like school construction creates unconstitutional disparities.
A federal court ruled that state education funding formulas unfairly disadvantaged school districts with large areas of tribal or federal land.
Following the court rulings, Lujan Grisham and her deputies switched positions on education funding issues held for decades by leaders from both political parties. They also filled a long-vacant tribal liaison position in the Public Education Department.
In January, Lujan Grisham's budget recommendation included $15 million in funding for Native American-focused funding that could be used for teacher training, recruitment, and curriculum development each year for the next two years.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the department "continues collaborating with tribal communities and others to work out the mechanics of our proposal."
"We are committed to the core principles of supporting tribal sovereignty and getting strategic resources to our students and communities that most need those investments," he said.
But Stewart's proposed budget of $15 million is a far cry from the tribal remedy framework document created collaboratively by the state's 23 tribes.
That plan recommends 20 new programs and over $100 million in specific spending, for example, internet infrastructure. It recommends things like recruiting Native American school administrators. It lays out policy changes on student discipline and communication with state agencies that wouldn't cost anything but would change governance and tribal-state relations on education.
"It is really important that the tribal remedy framework title or the notion of tribal remedy framework is not one where the administration hijacks the title and hopes that we don't call them out when the tribal remedy framework for them means something else than (what) it means for us," says Rep. Derrick Lente, of Sandia Pueblo.
His district west of Santa Fe covers seven of the state's 23 tribal nations, including five chapters of the Navajo Nation.
Education funding accounts for about $3.3 billion of the general fund budget at stake in the current legislative session.
Lente has put forward three bills modeled off of the tribal remedy framework. Two call for a combined $58 million in yearly funding for K-12 and college programs as well as curriculum development and maintenance.
A third bill echoing the framework calls for a one-time investment of $95 million for a tribal library and school internet infrastructure.
Despite the gap between his $153 proposals and the $15 million called for by Lujan Grisham, Lente says he's seen some compromise following discussions with the administration, who initially had suggested $5 million.
"I am hopeful that we are moving in the right direction with the increased budget," Lente said.
A fourth bill would appropriate $11 million in recurring funding for scholars at UNM to develop and maintain curricula for Indigenous languages.
For Pecos, that's key for keeping tribal cultures vibrant.
With so many tribal elders who are Indigenous language speakers dying during the pandemic, there's a sense of urgency. Around half of tribal youth don't speak their language, according to a legislative report released last week.
"Every time language dies, cultures die. And we're less rich as a result of that, unfortunate reality and outcome. And for us as Indigenous people, language is at the heart of governance. Language is the heart of culture," Pecos said.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.