Overdue education plan frustrates New Mexico native leaders

By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press/Report for America

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s plan to address the needs of underserved Indigenous students hasn’t been shared with tribal leaders or the public despite promises made by state officials that they would do so last year.

Tribal leaders were expecting to be invited to comment on a draft last October, ahead of a public release of the plan by Dec. 1 that did not happen.

“When it comes to promises, and it is a serious thing, it should have been followed up already,” said Mark Mitchell, recently named chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 Native American tribes in New Mexico and Texas.

The New Mexico Public Education Department, known as PED, had hired former Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Veronica García to write the plan.

García said she submitted a draft in early October and understood at the time that state education officials would refine and format it. But she never heard back from them.

“I don’t know what happened after that. That would be, I think, a good question for PED or the governor’s office,” she said.

The education department declined to comment Tuesday on why it failed to meet its self-imposed goal to release a draft for public comment by Dec. 1.

In recent months the agency told lawmakers it has unfilled open positions and other staffing issues and has asked for additional staff specifically to address the lawsuit.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the administration will release the plan “in the near future.” She declined to comment on the governor’s response to the October letter from the All Pueblo Council of Governors requesting a meeting to discuss the plan.

But Sackett added: “Tribal consultation and meaningful government-to-government relations have been a guiding principle of this administration since the governor came into office, and that has not changed.”

Mitchell said the tribes never got a response to their letter.

What will the plan cover?

The plan is aimed at addressing a 2018 court ruling that found that Native American, low-income, disabled, and English-learning students were not receiving a sufficient education, accounting for around 70% of the state’s K-12 population. Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, has tried unsuccessfully to get the ruling dismissed.

Lujan Grisham’s administration has increased public education funding and is proposing pay raises for teachers and more money for the Indian Education Act in the legislative session, which begins this month.

Indigenous education advocates have welcomed a recent move by Lujan Grisham to increase Native American studies in social studies curriculum.

But three years into Lujan Grisham’s first term, her administration still hasn’t released a comprehensive plan to address education failures laid bare by the lawsuit.

“I hope it doesn’t come out days before the session and we’re expected to embrace it,” said state Rep. Derrick Lente, a Sandia Pueblo Democrat, who said Steinhaus told him on Dec. 20 that the plan was still pending approval by Lujan Grisham.

The education plan would set forth budget priorities, but advocates have said it should also track which programs are effective and give more power to tribes in their discretion of how to spend state education money.

Without a comprehensive state plan for addressing tribal education inequities, Lujan Grisham’s education funding increases represent “a very piecemeal approach unmeasurable in terms of any way that you can assess whether we in fact are making progress,” said former Cochiti Pueblo governor Regis Pecos, who attended the meeting with Steinhaus and confirmed Lente’s account.

An education department spokeswoman, Judy Robinson, declined to comment on the meeting that Steinhaus attended.

Robinson defended the formation of the draft, saying that tribal governments were invited to comment on a very early form of it in August and that revisions are part of an “ongoing process.”

That early draft, obtained by the Associated Press, contained no specific or measurable action items and was largely a list of goals to make educational improvements for students, including Native Americans.

“We invited our tribal communities to comment at that time or wait until a later draft was released for their review. Many preferred to wait for the revised draft, which has yet to be issued,” Robinson said.

Despite the court ruling that many New Mexico students were not getting the public education they deserved, litigation related to the case has dragged on since 2018.

State officials will be deposed about their efforts to comply with the lawsuit in the coming months, according to plaintiff lawyer Preston Sanchez. The total cost of the lawsuit to taxpayers is expected to approach $8 million this year since it was filed in 2014.

Part of the litigation has been aimed at forcing the state to make a plan. Sanchez said he would prefer that Lujan Grisham’s administration do so voluntarily instead of demanding one through more court action.

Tribal leaders endorsed their own detailed plan in 2020, which advocates like Pecos see as a good starting point for negotiations.

Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. This story was produced under RFA’s America Statehouse News Initiative.

This story originally published Jan. 7, 2022, on Youth Today.


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