ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Native American leaders said creating a special $50 million trust fund to help finance educational programs within tribal communities in New Mexico, where there are the lowest rates of reading and math proficiency in the country, would be a big step toward improving outcomes for their students.
The leaders packed a legislative committee room Friday at the state Capitol, with many testifying that the proposed trust fund would be an investment in their people and a signal to students that the state believes in them.
Laguna Pueblo Gov. Wilfred Herrera Jr. pointed to a landmark education lawsuit that centered on the state's failures to provide an adequate education to at-risk students, including Native Americans, English language learners, students with disabilities and those from low-income families. Those groups make up a majority of the state’s student population.
In the nearly five years since the court ruled the state was falling short of its constitutional obligations, Herrera said legislative efforts and funding allocations to address the public education system's deficiencies have been piecemeal.
“I liken this to putting away resources for our children for the future," he said of the proposed trust fund. “If we do things right and manage it, administer it, let it grow, we stand to achieve things.”
New Mexico ranks last in fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math. The most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress revealed just 21% of fourth-graders could read at grade level and fewer than 1 in 5 students could do grade-level math. For eighth-graders, proficiencies in reading and math were even more dismal.
Supporters also pointed out when asked by lawmakers that Native American students have the lowest graduation rates among their New Mexico peers.
Democratic Rep. Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo, one of the bill's sponsors, said the trust fund would be established with a one-time allotment of state money. After a couple of years of earning interest, annual disbursements starting with the 2025 fiscal year could help tribes build their own educational programs.
Siting New Mexico’s financial windfall, Lente said: “This is the time to do it.”
The idea is for tribes to put the money toward programs they believe would have the most benefits for students, he said, rather than have the state dictate how the money is spent.
Many of the Native American leaders and librarians who work with tribal communities said one focus would be on revitalizing Native languages and weaving cultural heritage into lessons.
A separate measure that also won the committee's approval Friday would amend the Indian Education Act to funnel 50% of the state's Indian education fund to New Mexico tribes. Tribes would be able to carry over unused allocations.
In the landmark case known as Yazzie v. Martinez, the court pointed to low graduation rates, dismal student test proficiencies and high college remediation rates as indicators of how New Mexico was not meeting its constitutional obligation to ensure all students were college and career ready.
The court suggested public school funding levels, financing methods and oversight by the state Public Education Department were deficient. However, the court stopped short of prescribing specific remedies, and deferred decisions on how to meet obligations to lawmakers and the executive branch.
The education department last year shared with tribal leaders a draft plan to address the ruling, but many leaders said at the time it would not be enough.
In recent weeks, education officials with Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration confirmed they still were working to finalize the plan.
Supporters of the Native education bills say the intent is to encourage tribes to plan, design and implement their own community-based education programs to complement what children are learning in school.
The proposed trust fund comes just after U.S. Interior Secretary Debra Haaland visited New Mexico, where she grew up and is an enrolled Laguna Pueblo member, on the yearlong “Road to Healing” tour for victims and survivors of abuse at government-backed boarding schools.
“Tribal communities have the experts and I think we owe that to the pueblos to decide how they want to implement their programs,” said Rep. Yanira Gurrola, who has worked as a bilingual teacher. “And I think hopefully this will be something that sets a precedent for communities.”