Is push for education equity at risk amid COVID-19 economic fallout?

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Jasmine Yepa was happy with her daughters’ education at San Diego Riverside Charter School and Walatowa Headstart in Jemez Pueblo.

Certified education assistants speak Towa, the Pueblo’s traditional language, with students while teachers build lesson plans in English. The education assistants also translate English lesson plans into Towa, giving children additional opportunities to hear and speak the language in a classroom setting.  

Through her work at the Native American Budget and Policy Institute, Yepa understands the importance of her daughters learning their culture and language to dilute what she calls a “white washed system” that assimilates non-white students into American culture.

“Celebrating multiculturalism and multilingualism should help foster appreciation of diversity and foster respect for people’s differences,” she said. “It’s something that all policy makers should understand. Language and culture plays a huge role in not only maintaining our cultural way of life but also our core values.”

Then COVID-19 struck.

And Yepa learned how hard home instruction is when children are learning in two languages.

Her partner, who is fluent in Towa, had to step up, she said.

Now, as spring turns into summer and she wonders what school will look like in the fall because of COVID-19, she’s concerned her daughters will fall behind as the state struggles to maintain education spending. 

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When state lawmakers meet in Santa Fe on Thursday, a drive to expand and strengthen multicultural education could get lost as the Legislature figures out how to fill a nearly two-billion dollar budget hole. That’s billion with a capital B. 

Lawmakers acknowledge money likely going to school districts will be less than originally planned. 

Sen. Mimi Stewart. D-Albuquerque

“I just want to be honest with everyone,” said Sen. Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque. “What we are probably going to do is what’s called sanding, rather than going through the budget and taking out this program or that program we would probably take just a little bit from everything.”

The return of Stewart and New Mexico’s 111 other legislators to Santa Fe on Thursday to recalibrate New Mexico’s spending was unimaginable four months ago. In February the Legislature raised spending by half a billion over the year before and salted away surplus dollars, swelling the state’s rainy day fund to more than $1.5 billion.

Then, quick on the heels of what lawmakers thought would be a second year of surpluses came a one-two punch: an economic shutdown caused by COVID-19 and a devastated oil and gas industry, the single largest generator of revenue funding New Mexico state government. 

Three-quarters of a billion dollars from Washington and the state’s healthy reserves should cushion public education from steep cuts, at least for now, legislators and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham have said.

Public education composes around 45% of New Mexico’s spending each year. And while there are positive signs that lawmakers will protect public education more than other parts of state government, it’s unclear how the hard economic times will affect the state’s newfound commitment to addressing decades of educational inequities.

A significant portion of that commitment revolves around multicultural and multilingual education programs meant to help three-fourths of the state’s students that the late state Judge Sarah Singleton identified as at-risk in 2018. The ruling found that for decades the state had failed to adequately educate all of its children, which is required by the state constitution. New Mexico’s efforts to rectify that failing have been under court oversight since that ruling in the landmark Yazzi-Martinez lawsuit. 

Nearly three of every four New Mexico students come from low-income families. One in seven are English language learners; the same percentage are disabled. One in 10 are Native American.

Trenton DeVore of Jemez Pueblo and other students visited the Roundhouse in February to lobby lawmakers for multicultural education. Photo credit / Trip Jennings

Now, the lawsuit’s plaintiffs and education advocates have both short-term and long-term concerns about the state’s commitment to those programs. 

The spending plan recommended by the Legislature’s budget arm, the Legislative Finance Committee, would make some cuts. 

Indigenous, Multilingual, Multicultural, and Special Education Initiatives would be trimmed from $5.5 million to $2.8 million and what the state would spend on culturally and linguistically diverse instructional material and curriculum development would drop by $8 million. The plan also proposes canceling out $4.2 million for mentorship stipends.

It’s unclear where Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stands on those programs for the special session.

Proposed cuts to multicultural initiatives and bilingual support in a budget framework adopted by the Legislature’s budget arm. the Legislative Finance Committee.

“How the state chooses during this special session will say something about the state’s moral character and what it values,” said Regis Pecos, senior policy advisor for Democratic House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton of Albuquerque. “It is a time of higher accountability regardless of partisan affiliation and regardless of our fiscal situation.” 

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Beyond immediate concerns about budget cuts lawmakers may make, there also are worries about inequities worsening as COVID-19 alters public education.

According to research from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee, public school students in the state will be behind on instruction by as much as three months to a year because of COVID-19. 

When schools shut down in the spring they moved to an online learning model. One in five students, however, according to the Legislative Finance Committee, were unreachable for social distance learning, and among those that participated, more than half stopped logging on by the end of the school year. For earlier grades and at-risk students, the gap is expected to be larger.

The data seemed to confirm a concern raised in the same report that at-risk students, including children experiencing poverty and homelessness, English learners, and children with disabilities, were more likely to fall behind due to lost instructional time.

Those challenges plus the long-term goal of  correcting deep educational inequities has some puzzled by the Lujan Grisham administration’s request to end court oversight in the Yazzie/Martinez suit. 

The administration and plaintiffs will meet in court June 29 to argue that request.. 

The governor is clear “the reform we need to see take place in our public education system will indeed take decades,” said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Sackett. “The intent of the motion to dismiss is to ensure the state Legislature and Public Education Department are managing that transformation, not a court.”

But not everyone trusts New Mexico to do the right thing without the hammer of court oversight. Some see irony, too, that the governor on June 4 said she was elevating  “racial justice to the center”  of her administration by creating a Council on Racial Justice.

“There is a real inconsistency in promoting the (Council on Racial Justice) on the one hand and trying to have the lawsuit dismissed on the other,” said James Jimenez, executive director of New Mexico Voices for Children. “The lawsuit is about racial equity.”

Despite warnings over several decades about the inequities in public education for Indigenous students, English language learners and students with special needs when compared to other populations, New Mexico didn’t begin to invest heavily to remedy long-standing inequities  in these areas until the court ruling. Since 2019, New Mexico has invested several hundred million dollars in new money to lessen those inequities.

A perusal of the more than 3,000 findings of fact from the Yazzie/Martinez court case that produced the 2018 ruling demonstrates the daunting nature of the obstacles that stand in the way of reforming a system centuries in the making. 

Allen Sanchez, spokesman for New Mexico conference of Catholic bishops and president of CHI St. Joseph’s Children, said the lawsuit is “an instrument and a tool for correcting institutional racism.” 

Institutional racism, Sanchez was careful to say, is not bigotry by individual decision makers but about maintaining a system that has led to decades of disparate outcomes for the student populations named in the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit.

“I like the governor but she has to be reminded this lawsuit is about inequities and institutional racism.” 

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In many ways, Jasmine Yepa’s children would not seem to qualify as at risk. But the mother of two talked about the adjustment she and her partner Eldrick Toya had to make to help their kids finish the school year.

She found herself focused on her kindergartner at the expense of the pre-kindergartner.

“We had to make hard decisions on a weekly basis like how do we portion our time to make sure that all of us are getting what we need to get done,” said Yepa, who worked 40 hours a week from home while her partner continued his college education via online courses. 

“A lot of Zoom calls, a lot of phone calls, and the days would just fly by so we really had to make those hard choices,” Yepa said. 

Ava, the kindergartner, was sent home with hard copy packets of homework to complete the school year. Even though the family has internet access and devices, she didn’t receive any online coursework. 

Ava completed 95 percent of the packet and was passed onto the first grade, her mother said.

But to continue her dual language education, Toya, who is fluent in Towa, took on the role “of teaching them other forms of education about our culture and about our history. That probably her grandparents would have done had they been in the house,” Yepa said.

Although they live in the same village, Ava didn’t see her grandparents often because Jemez Pueblo created strict social distancing guidelines to prevent people from visiting each other’s homes.

“Her education was completely disrupted, I don’t really feel where she ended off this year is where she would’ve ended if she had been in the classroom everyday,” Yepa said. 

Brandi Ahmie of Laguna spoke of a similar experience.

Laguna Elementary School sent her daughter, Emmi Ahmie-Deloris, home with five weeks of homework. Emmi completed two-thirds of the packet before the school sent a letter telling her parents that she passed onto the next grade. 

Brandi Ahmie

Emmi Ahmie-Deloris uses an electric sander on a wooden frame at her home in Laguna Pueblo. / Courtesy of her mother Brandi Ahmie

Next fall, Ahmie will transfer her daughter from the tribal school to Comanche Elementary School in Albuquerque because she believes Albuquerque Public Schools is better prepared for online instruction than the tribal school. The education packets sent home with her daughter, she feels, set her behind.

“They are expecting our parents to educate our children at home. When you do that to tribal communities, that is not fair,” Ahmie said.

As she and her daughter stressed over the take home work, Ahmie’s daughter found a new learning opportunity at her father’s ranch. Working under the sun, she came to understand the importance of agriculture in her Pueblo culture while gaining confidence outside the classroom, Ahmie said.

“She comes home and she talks about the heifers and the baby cows and how they are branded and how they are castrated and she talks with knowledge and understanding of how it’s done.” Ahmie said. “I look at it as an opportunity to learn and have success in a career later on in life if she can learn those kinds of skills from her dad now. Because ultimately it can make her a well rounded human.”

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In Gallup, Jvanna Hanks, deputy superintendent at the Gallup-McKinley School District is preparing for the uncertainties. If necessary, the district will go with a blended learning environment this fall, where some students will divide their time in the classroom and online instruction. But it’s not without heartburn. 

“One of our largest concerns is that distance learning is going to be a key factor this next year,” she said. “We do not have enough physical computers or enough internet connectivity for our students.”

The school district’s 11,600 student population is nearly 80% Native American, with many children living in rural areas in western New Mexico.

The district is ready to spend a bulk of federal aid coming from Washington because of COVID-19 on new devices for students. In addition to previous purchases, that could put devices in the hand of all students from the third grade into high school. But internet connectivity is an issue for some students who live in rural areas. So the district plans to install wifi hot spots on its school busses and purchase individual hot spots for students in remote areas.

As the assistant superintendent of business at Gallup-McKinley County Schools, Hanks also is responsible for ensuring people are safe in the age of COVID-19 when schools reopen in the fall. 

She’s purchased 35,000 disposable face masks, just more than 1,000 masks for each of the district’s 34 schools that extend from Crownpoint, Zuni and Tohatchi. She’s holding onto $50,000 to spend on more masks, preparing for the item to be mandatory for all students and staff in New Mexico public schools next school year.

She shops on the open market, so she’s competing to buy PPE for 11,600 students, she said.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart with Deputy Secretary Kara Bobroff

Public Education Department Secretary Ryan Stewart acknowledged during a conference call by education advocates on June 4 the difficulties imposed by COVID-19.

The coming together of many disparate challenges is overwhelming, especially as the state education department attempts to discern the best way to reopen schools this fall,  Stewart told listeners on the conference call. 
“We are really trying to learn from what is happening out there so that we can take those best practices and let science really lead our decision making when it comes to safely bringing our students and our staff back,” Stewart said. 

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