Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

As The Paper. reported earlier this year, the Yazzie /Martinez lawsuit has forced the hand of the New Mexico Department of Education to take a long, hard look at equity in education as it pertains to tribal and rural youth. The reach of this lawsuit is vast—everything from teacher training to broadband access. NMPED is trying to plug these holes in the system, but it’s an old ship and has outdated systems. In the Education Committee again, legislators evoked the Yazzie /Martinez case cited in HB 84—The Native Language Education Program Unit.

We’re all equal

The state has a formula called the SEG, or the State Equalization Guarantee. This formula does not currently include targeted resources for Native students, Native languages, or Tribal education programs. HB 84 effectively amends the Public School Finance Act to allow Tribal Education Departments to receive the same education formula funding alongside schools and districts that already receive these funds. This now places many Tribal Education Departments (TEDs) on par with entire school districts and charter schools seeking funding from the state. These departments vary in size and scope, which can create opposition. But the overarching good is that the bill brings into the mix small, Tribal-controlled schools that have been left out of the district formula.

A point of concern raised by Education Committee Member Representative T. Ryan Lane asked if the direct allocation to a school or tribe was even constitutional. To which Committee Chairman Derek Lente stated, “Per the State-Tribal constitution act, PED must currently have to collaborate and consult with tribes before curriculums can be implemented within the classroom already. PED must respect the Tribes sovereignty over this process in the continuance of teaching native languages in the public schools. All these collaborative mechanisms are already in place in various forms and have been since the late ’80s.”  The subsequent question at hand was if these schools would receive direct money from the state? And the answer is no. The tribe will receive the state allocation for management purposes and pass that along to their education programs.

Some representatives questioned if some of the tribes are not ready to manage this money. Even though most tribes in the state do have an education department, they have never had funding like this to take care of annually. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that “many TEDs lack sufficient funding to fully develop expertise in educational administration and thus never fulfilling their full potential.” 

For years, Tribal language programs in schools have had to find funding from grant resources and Tribal appropriations. But this will allow the tribes, if needed, to place their Native Language Program units into the SEG formula, just as bilingual education programs have been able to for years.

Show us the money

What does this mean financially for New Mexico? Although the bill does not contain a specific appropriation, the fiscal impact of adding Tribal language programs into the SEG formula could be as much as $5 million for the Language Program Units and $48 million for students deemed “at-risk.” The “at-risk” designation is also the result of the Yazzie/Martinez case. This results in a cost of nearly $1,800 per Native student.

In its ruling on Yazzie/Martinez, the court deemed lack of funding was not an excuse for the violation of children’s constitutional rights and the lack of attention given to the state’s agreements per the Indian Education Act written into law nearly 30 years ago. 

The biggest opposition came from some committee members who brought up the fact that there are Indian Educations Funds (IEFs) already in place and that they already address these concerns. They do, but not well enough; considering the budget needed for “at-risk” students, the yearly tribal government’s award from the IEF totaled $2.2 million. The IEF budget is to address all educational concerns, not only language efforts. Yazzie /Martinez called for equity across the board, and considering this IEF amount varies from year to year, tribes cannot count on that as stable funding to run an entire program. 

When speaking on the Yazzie /Martinez decision a year ago, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham stated, “We have a generational work to do in restoring educational outcomes for communities of color and disadvantaged populations in our state. The system will not reform itself.”

So once again, the Yazzie /Martinez ruling casts its shadow over the legislation this year and for years to come. To meet the court ruling, legislators need to be looking for ways to strengthen resources, shift norms and ultimately change the educational landscape for Native youth across the state. As the state attempts to adjust to this new era in Tribal education, it will take diligence and patience. If state legislators and officials can figure out a formula, future youth will benefit from the work of so many today.

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Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.