When Hailey Thomas first started going to school in New Mexico, she immediately noticed the difference in the quality of her education in comparison to Arizona.
“It felt like there were lower standards for Native schools,” she said. “It feels like there’s an unequal education for Navajo students. It’s not right. We deserve a good education. We deserve to be here.”
Thomas (Diné) donned turquoise and her crown that identifies her as royalty from Navajo Preparatory School as she and a cohort of fellow students from the school in Farmington testified before the House Education Committee on Friday to ask lawmakers to support two bills that would fund tribal education, including bilingual and multicultural programs for Native students throughout the state.
House Bill 134 would create a tribal education trust fund to support tribes in building bilingual and multicultural programs, extracurricular activities and academic programs to support Native students. The proposal states the fund would distribute among the 23 tribes in New Mexico either $12.5 million or 5% of the average year-end market values of the trust fund over the last five years, whichever is greater.
House Bill 135 proposes changes to the Indian Education Act, creating an education fund that will distribute funds to each tribe monthly.
Rep. Derrick Lente (D-Sandia Pueblo) introduced both bills. The bills return to the 2024 legislative session after moving through committees but stalling before they got a floor vote. Lente said he stalled the proposals when tribes expressed concern about equitable distribution of funds.
In the committee on Friday, House Bill 134 rolled over to another day until an amendment, which would address concerns about the trust fund committee, is finalized. The committee would contain representation from several tribes and convene after the passage of the bill to create an equitable funding-distribution model.
House Bill 135 passed 10-0 in a unanimous, bipartisan vote.
“When tribes have sufficient capacity they can develop culturally relevant programs that improve student engagement and outcomes,” Lente said. “They can teach their children their languages, their cultures, they can work with public schools and help them to assess and meet the needs of Native American students.”
The Navajo Prep students who testified were in Santa Fe since Wednesday advocating for investments in infrastructure and refurbishment for their school. Students said they wanted to see themselves better supported in the curriculum that reflects their experiences and empowers them to follow their dreams.
“I see the value in being able to have a way to support education that would go out to the Navajo students and Pueblos all over New Mexico,” said student Aspyn Kaskalla. “It’ll provide support to young people to do anything they want to do. It’s important that they provide a way for us to succeed.”
Supporters of the bill said Native students have been historically excluded from their own education and funding for their schools, condemning previous inaction by the state and educational institutions.
“Our ancestors paid it forward in perpetuity,” said Mark Mitchell, former governor of the Pueblo of Tesuque. “So now we’re here to ask this committee to make sure that the children coming in behind us have that same opportunity and equality for everyone.”
Lente said students do better academically when they can engage with their culture in the classroom. Native students in New Mexico are far behind their peers in reading, math and science, according to the New Mexico Public Education Department.
Only about 20% are proficient in reading, with 13.8% proficient in math and 21% proficient in science. Tribal leaders said they were eager to change that by offering more tutoring, advanced learning classes, wellness counseling and educational activities.
“It has been six years since the Yazzie-Martinez court decision and the achievement gap has stayed the same or maybe even grown wider,” said Wendell Chino, 1st Lieutenant Governor of the Pueblo of Acoma. “Tribal leaders like me are tired of telling and repeating the same story. We want a different outcome.”
The Yazzie-Martinez case is a landmark education reform ruling that includes orders to provide more culturally and linguistically relevant programs and better educational support systems for Native students.
The committee praised the bill as well as the Navajo Preparatory School students for standing up for their futures.
“I heard comments about leaders of tomorrow or future leaders,” said Rep. Brian Baca (R-Los Lunas) to the students in committee. “And my comment to you is you are already leaders – leaders of your school, leaders in your community and leaders in our state.”
The Yazzie-Martinez findings noted that New Mexico did not meet its constitutional duty to a majority of public school students in the state. Rep. Patricia Roybal Caballero (D-Albuquerque) said the lawsuit showed the state did not abide by the Indian Education Act to “mitigate the impact of historical trauma.” The bills would help take the state closer to compliance with the ruling, she said.
“We have an obligation based on these findings to ensure that our children have a fair, just and equitable education,” said Roybal Caballero. “I cannot emphasize this enough.”
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