New Mexico faces moral test on educating diverse students

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Wilhelmina Yazzie speaks at the Roundhouse at the start of the 2019 legislative session. Credit / Anthony Jackson New Mexico In Depth

When Wilhelmina Yazzie thinks back to elementary school, she remembers feeling shame in not speaking “proper English.”

These days, Yazzie feels pride in speaking Navajo and wants the same for her children when they grow up.

“That would be one of the great accomplishments, if we get (Native language classes) in all the schools,” Yazzie said a few weeks ago to talk about a historic ruling in a lawsuit that bears her name.

However, the school district her children attend – Gallup McKinley – gets just $25,000 in Indian Education Act funding to serve about 9,000 Native American students. “That is pennies. There’s hardly anything we can do with that to meet the cultural and linguistic needs that are required under this law,” said Superintendent Mike Hyatt.

That is just one stunning revelation. Judge Sarah Singleton’s 600-page findings of fact and ruling from the Yazzie Martinez lawsuit includes plenty of other bombshells.

Some teachers with language certificates in school districts with high concentrations of Native Americans refused to teach indigenous youth learning English because they believed low test scores might “negatively affect their teaching evaluations.”  Under former Gov. Susana Martinez’s education policies, how students performed on standardized tests influenced how teachers were evaluated.

Most Native American English learners in six school districts with high concentrations of indigenous students are placed in remedial reading rather than given dual language or bilingual programs that are considered the “gold standard” for teaching English learners.

Fewer than 2 percent of teachers in the state’s public schools are Native American.

New Mexico In Depth has published an indexed version of Singleton’s findings, highlighting different sections of the ruling and interesting points.

Meanwhile, the state of New Mexico can’t determine if students who are English language learners are receiving adequate assistance because the Public Education Department is not providing sufficient monitoring.

These are just a few of Singleton’s 3,212 findings about how the state fails at-risk students. A large population of the state’s public school students qualify for one at-risk factor, according to Singleton. Nearly three of every four come from low-income families. One in seven are English language learners; the same percentage are disabled. One in 10 are Native American.

Yazzie, along with her fellow plaintiffs in the lawsuit and advocates spanning the state’s communities of color, have had enough and are demanding change, now.

In the wake of Singleton’s hammer, New Mexico is facing a moral test: How to do better by a majority of its public school students.

“My hope is that they act and take a deeper look at what our children need,” Yazzie said of policy makers. “As minorities we always seem to get the last of everything, the leftovers.”

In a joint session of the Legislature on Feb. 1, Edward Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, bluntly described the importance of the moment.

Calling Yazzie Martinez a “landmark decision of monumental proportions,” Torres said, “Not since 1890 when the first Indian education policy was unveiled focused on assimilation have we had such an opportunity as we have today to redefine education that does not destroy who we are as a people.”

Edward Paul Torres, Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors speaks about the importance of the Yazzie Martinez decision to a Joint Session of the Legislature on Feb. 1.

The state appears prepared to pump money — an additional half a billion dollars a year — to address the inequities Singleton enumerated in a ruling last year, and then detailed in the much more voluminous findings of fact. The state is so far behind in adequately funding education many policy makers expect several years before the judge finds New Mexico is no longer violating its own constitution.

What is unknown, after all the money is spent, is what the state’s education system will look like.

At the heart of a debate playing out in Santa Fe now is whether the state’s education system will meet the transformational aspirations of those who brought the lawsuit, or whether legislators will tweak around the edges in a way that some fear will keep the status quo intact.

After years of critiquing the way the state spends money to educate its children from the periphery, advocates for at-risk students, many of whom come from the state’s communities of color, are negotiating with educational policy experts and insiders directly.

Mostly everyone agrees that more money is needed — the Legislature’s budget arm and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s budget agency are within striking distance of agreeing on additional money in 2019.

But consensus ends when it comes to changes beyond money.

Some believe the state simply needs more funding and more accountability mechanisms, with some restructuring of state agencies, to ensure the PED adheres to laws already on the books.

But others say there are gaps in the current multicultural education laws Singleton name-checked as going unfulfilled. And those gaps need to be filled to ensure students have the culturally responsive learning environments envisioned by those laws.

“Those acts have deficiencies,” said House Majority Floor Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, Democrat of Albuquerque, one of a group of lawmakers proposing a package of bills they say are necessary to ensure the spirit of current education laws are actualized.  “We hope that the legislation that we are putting forth would amend those acts to meet the sufficiency requirement and adequate funding for all students.”

Multicultural education

At its heart, multicultural education embraces the axiom that students are more likely to thrive when they see themselves, their families and their histories at the center of the classroom and in their lessons, and when they are taught by those who speak their language and share their cultural backgrounds.

The New Mexico Constitution in 1912 embraced bilingualism in English and Spanish as fundamental, affirming the right to vote, hold elective office, or sit on juries regardless of “religion, race, language or color, or inability to speak, read or write the English or Spanish languages.” It also directed the Legislature to ensure teachers are equipped to teach students in both languages.

The state Constitution is silent on the education of Indian children. Fast forward through almost a century, during which the United States, and state governments that contracted with the federal government to provide education, did their best to force assimilation. Detailed by Singleton in her findings of fact, that included removing Indian children to boarding schools, withholding their language, and encouraging them to adopt white cultural norms. The result has been a “long-term, ongoing effect on New Mexico’s tribal communities,” Singleton wrote, “including a disconnect from and distrust of state institutions, such as public schools, where Native American values are not respected.”

New Mexico began making strides in 1973, when it passed the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act. Then in 2003 the Legislature passed New Mexico’s Indian Education Act, with the goal of “culturally-relevant pedagogy, native language, and collaborative partnerships,” followed by the Hispanic Education Act in 2010.  

These acts enshrine a different approach. At least on paper.

A sufficiently multicultural education system as envisioned by the drafters of those laws would produce different classrooms than exist today, advocates say. All students would “become bilingual, or biliterate in English and a second language,” specifically including Spanish and Native American languages.  Non-English speaking students would have the opportunity to learn in their home language while also learning English.

More children would have teachers who look like them. Curriculum would reflect the backgrounds and identities of students. And they would openly acknowledge and incorporate cultural difference into classroom dialogue and exercises.

Judge Singleton wrote of the importance of such an education in her findings of fact.

“A rigorous and well-designed culturally relevant curriculum has a positive impact on students,” Singleton declared, writing that such a curriculum would center around “the knowledge and perspectives of an ethnic or racial group” rooted in “lived experiences and intellectual scholarship.”

A multicultural education that truly reflects the diversity of New Mexico students would suffuse everything from social studies to science, said Rebecca Blum-Martinez, director of Latin American Programs in Education at the University of New Mexico.

“It cannot be an aside. It cannot be a heroes and taco day,” she said.

She gave an example of a science lesson that builds on cultural identity while meeting Next Generation Science Standards. Using project-based learning on sustainable agriculture, for example, students would be asked to research traditional agriculture methods and water systems, in addition to modern sustainable practices.

That applies to the state’s Native children, too, with language being particularly important.

“For us as Native people, language is not just the fact that you can speak a language,” said Christine Sims, associate professor of educational linguistics and American Indian Education at UNM. “These languages tie to the very survival of cultures, and when languages begin to erode, many things also begin to fade away.”

Advocates argue multiculturalism doesn’t just help at-risk children, a large percentage of whom come from low-income communities of color. It would benefit all public school children. Learning and engaging with others from different lived experiences, worldviews and religious affiliations, they reason, strengthens a child’s critical thinking skills at a time when society — nationally and globally — is rapidly changing.

“It really is about all of us,” said Regis Pecos, co-director of the Leadership Institute and one of the founders of The Native American Budget and Policy Institute. “We’ve been conditioned to think about multiculturalism as something only for people of these respective cultures, people of color, when it is more inclusive of everyone who’s part of this larger world.”

Torres, the Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, described it as a framework that encourages us to become “better human beings and contributing to our collective wellbeing.”

Diane Torres-Velásquez, associate professor at the University of New Mexico and president of the Latino Education Task Force and supporter of plaintiffs in the Yazzie Martinez case, addressed a gathered crowd at a news conference in Albuquerque, after Judge Singleton issued her ruling. Speakers Regis Pecos, Mike Grossman and Tom Sullivan look on, from right to left. Photo credit / Trip Jennings

Yet New Mexico hasn’t done so well implementing its own laws. Singleton was damning in her assessment of how the state has actually met its obligation to create a multicultural educational system.

Singleton noted that many school district witnesses testified during the 2017 trial in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit that they do not have the money for adequate services for English language learners. In addition, the state did not provide additional support for that population of students when it introduced the PARCC standardized test several years ago, according to a superintendent at one of the New Mexico’s largest school districts.

Native American English language learners, many of whom live in rural or geographically isolated areas, meanwhile, don’t have “ample opportunities to interact with different kinds of English because their school locations often lack access to technology and instructional materials.”

Singleton noted these deficiencies and more to demonstrate that New Mexico wasn’t abiding by the laws it already has to ensure multicultural education. That has thrust those acts to the center of the discussion among state lawmakers and policy makers during this year’s session.

Fixing education

As with any discussion about education, money is key, but Lujan Grisham and the Legislature’s budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee, aren’t far apart in their proposals. Lujan Grisham has proposed spending $503 million in additional money compared to $416 million by the LFC.

A coalition of teachers, parents, students, district superintendents, bilingual experts and nonprofit organizations, under the banner Transform Education New Mexico, are pushing for an injection of a billion dollars.

Whatever amount is finally agreed to, most people agree it will only be a start.

On a parallel track to the money talks is a discussion about the three acts Singleton cited in her ruling and how much to do to get the state in compliance.

There is an ongoing debate about how to achieve that, with one approach perhaps best summarized by Charles Sallee, deputy director of the Legislative Finance Committee, in testimony before lawmakers recently.

“It’s not that law needs to be rewritten, but that law needs to be followed,” he told the House budget committee on January 17.

Before increasing funding, Sallee suggested lawmakers make sure the money is going toward things that will really benefit kids.

Attracting teachers is one way, nearly everyone agrees. And Senate legislation to increase minimum salaries for teachers, certain school counselors, principals, and assistant principals is making its way through the Legislature.

“It’s all about teachers. It’s all about their ability to teach with this multicultural background with an understanding of the students they are teaching,” said Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque. “We have to retrain and train teachers better. We need to have a better curriculum.”

But Stapleton and other lawmakers believe there’s more to do than merely follow the three acts.  They contend current laws on the books exist largely on paper, through both lack of will on the part of public officials and lack of funding, and that there’s a need for more explicit policies to ensure the intent of the laws is fully actualized.

“If we look at New Mexico, in contrast with maybe to a state like Nebraska, we should recognize the fact that we are multicultural,” said Rep. Tomas Salazar, D-Las Vegas. “This uniqueness that we carry relative to that should be reflected in many different ways, including in terms of educational programs.”  

Stapleton, Salazar and other lawmakers, most of whom are Hispanic, Native American or African American, are proposing a variety of ideas to ensure gaps in the laws are filled in whatever education legislation emerges from this year’s session.

They include proposals to fill the teacher pipeline. There are bills for a loan program for teachers seeking to teach English as a second language and a fund for professional teacher development on culturally and linguistically responsive education.

They want to ensure all at-risk students have access to school nurses, social workers and behavioral health services, noting students do better in school when these needs are met.

A proposal already passed and signed by the governor requires schools with high concentrations of indigenous students to assess their needs and prioritize addressing them in budgets.

Another bill mandates a research-based literacy and biliteracy initiative in New Mexico that is culturally and linguistically relevant to each student.

Behind-the-scene negotiations already have begun for what ideas and proposals will make the cut into an omnibus piece of education legislation meant to respond to Singleton’s ruling.

Yazzie is watching from afar in Gallup as the Legislature and the governor’s newly appointed education team lurch toward a proposal to respond to the historic ruling.

She admits that she is wary of trusting the same people and institutions who’ve made decisions for educating New Mexico’s students to make the right decisions now. She is thankful for the Transform Education New Mexico coalition and lawmakers who are pushing for what she considers deep change.

She has faith the right thing will be done, she says, “but not as much as I would like … . It’s very sad. We had to file a lawsuit.”

Marjorie Childress and Elizabeth Miller contributed to this story.

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