January 19, 2021

Report outlines deficiencies in education for Native American students

While Native American students in New Mexico are showing improvement in graduation rates, third-grade reading and math proficiency, they continue to perform well below their peers on state and national measures of achievement.

As a result, a report released Monday makes several recommendations to help close the gap. They include asking the Legislature to reduce or eliminate the so-called Impact Aid credit from the state’s public education funding formula, freeing up the money for affected school districts to spend on evidence-based interventions.

“If the Legislature were to remove the Impact Aid credit from the public education funding formula, Impact Aid districts could locally decide to spend the additional operational funding on added supports for facility needs, instruction, tribal collaboration activities, or tribal education departments,” the Legislative Finance Committee wrote in a progress report on the implementation of the Indian Education Act, which was passed in 2003.

Federal Impact Aid compensates school districts and charter schools for the loss of property tax from tribal lands and other tax-exempt federal property within their boundaries.

Other recommendations in the report, which was presented to lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee, include:

  • The Legislature should invest in broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved tribal communities and request a plan from the state Department of Information Technology to prioritize funds for those communities.
  • The Public Education Department should annually assess the implementation and success of a four-part strategy to address the landmark Martinez/Yazzie lawsuit, which found the state failed to adequately serve Native American children, among other students at risk of poor outcomes.
  • Native American-serving school districts and charter schools should take full advantage of K-5 Plus and extended learning time programs for Native American students.

Brian Hoffmeister, a Legislative Finance Committee program evaluator, said the state is “investing significant financial resources” to address shortcomings in the education of Native Americans.

“Nevertheless, a history of understaffing in PED’s Indian Education Division, difficulties with utilizing all available funding, difficulties with local collaboration and challenges with ensuring funds are aligned to targeted outcomes have resulted in a system that does not serve Native American students in a comprehensive and coordinated manner,” he told lawmakers.

State Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, was critical of the report, saying it “appears to neutralize rather than understand the tribal remedy framework.” The framework, which was developed by Indigenous people, delineates actions the state must take to comply with the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit and the Indian Education Act.

“I’m disappointed because it seems that the LFC and the staff believes that its own experts — and I say this with all due respect — that they believe their own experts know more about Indian education and Indian life and Indian communities than our own renowned indigenous experts, our own renowned indigenous tribal leadership, and those that are close to the communities,” said Lente, who is Native American.

Lente described the report as an “effort to maintain the status quo.”

Lente did not return a message seeking comment.

Some districts are “significantly affected” by Impact Aid, the report states. For example, the fiscal year 2021 preliminary funding formula takes credit for 75 percent of the $30 million that Gallup-McKinley County Schools are anticipated to receive, according to the report.

The funding formula has created clashes, as well as litigation, between school districts and the state. In the past few legislative sessions, some lawmakers have introduced measures that would increase funding for poor districts that rely on the federal aid — mostly without success.

In an op-ed last year, Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s secretary of public education, said another important step to providing quality education to every student was restoring full state funding to districts that receive federal impact aid.

“Historically, the state has taken credit for a large portion of those funds, effectively reducing state payments to those districts,” he wrote. “Our proposal eliminates those credits and would mean millions of dollars in additional funding for Native American students.”

New Mexican staff writer Robert Nott contributed to this report.

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.