February 1, 2022

Bills to address Yazzie/Martinez court ruling advance

The House Education Committee approved a trio of bills to fund programs to help Native American students succeed in school.

The three bills, sponsored by Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, are in response to the historic 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling that said New Mexico has denied several groups of students, including Native Americans, their constitutional right to an education.

House bills 87, 88 and 90 would provide more than $70 million to tribal entities to help offer culturally relevant lesson plans and access to virtual and after-school programs for those students. 

“This is not about throwing money at a problem in hopes that it goes away,” Lente told committee members. “That’s a practice we’ve engaged in for decades and we’ve seen the results.

“Where we’re trying to get to is shift the priorities … to make sure Native American students are educated within their communities … and have the capacity to access equitable learning programs,” he added.

House Bill 87 would appropriate $20 million from the state’s general fund to the Indian Education Act to provide educational funding for tribes starting July 1, 2024. That money would be used to create culturally relevant learning programs, including Native language programs, for students in the K-12 system. 

A Legislative Education Study Committee report says if the bill becomes law, each of the state’s 23 tribal entities would receive $547,826 per year.

House Bill 88 would appropriate $21.5 million to help tribal education departments develop learning plans and programs for students, extend learning opportunities and support tribal school libraries. That bill also would take effect July 1, 2024. 

Each tribe and pueblo would get $250,000 a year, with the exception of the Navajo Nation, which would get $500,000, according to the bill’s fiscal report.

Both bills dole out money based on student populations in tribal communities, Lente said. 

House Bill 90 is aimed at higher education. It appropriates $29.6 million to four state colleges and three tribal colleges for 53 initiatives, such as building a Native American teacher pipeline and expanding high school-to-college programs to encourage those students to attend college. The bill’s fiscal impact report says it is assumed the bill would go into effect 90 days after the last day of the Legislature, assuming Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs it into law. 

Some lawmakers and members of the public who spoke in support of the bills said they want a provision requiring tribal entities to report on the outcomes of any programs they fund with the money. Lente agreed, noting those requirements will be included in the intergovernmental agreements tribal entities are required to create with the state to administer the funding. 

“It would be unconscionable to just give money away and expect something done and you don’t know what the results will be,” Lente said. 

Even lawmakers in favor of the initiatives questioned whether the state is doing enough to meet the needs of that court ruling.

Assessing what she called “generations of inequity,” Rep. Patricia Roybal-Caballero, D-Albuquerque, said previous attempts to bring funding formulas “up to what we believe are equitable distributions still doesn’t get us up to the point of full equity.”

Lente unsuccessfully tried to move similar legislation through last year’s regular 60-day session. 

After Monday’s committee vote, Lente said he didn’t do “enough legwork” in building support for those bills ahead of last year’s session. He said this year both the Legislative Finance Committee and the Governor’s Office have included room in their respective budgets to create “effective” responses to that lawsuit, which he sees as a sign of support. 

But he also noted the 30-day session is nearly halfway done.

“I’m talking confidently, but I can only move as fast as others allow me to move,” he said. 

The Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit, brought on by a coalition of parents, students, lawmakers and others in 2014, charged New Mexico had not done enough to address the needs of Native Americans, English-language learners, disabled and low-income students. 

All those student groups typically lag behind Anglo students when it comes to math and reading proficiency. While the court ruling did not apply a price tag to its mandate, it said New Mexico has to begin providing remedies for that problem. 

As of Monday, there were no other legislative bills filed in the House of Representatives regarding the Yazzie/Martinez case. Lente said he thinks the push to address the court ruling has been led by Native Americans because “if we don’t do this, nobody is going to make it a priority.”

In the Senate, three Democrats have filed Senate Memorial 12, which asks the state Public Education Department to develop a “comprehensive plan” to address the needs of the student groups tied to the Yazzie/Martinez case and then annually report to the Legislature about the plan.