NM assistant secretary for Indian education ousted

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The state’s assistant secretary for Native American education is claiming she was unfairly forced out of the New Mexico Public Education Department earlier this month.

In a two-page letter sent this week to the state’s tribal elders and obtained by New Mexico In Depth, Latifah Phillips said she “was approached with a termination letter with no explanation or any known documented reasoning, and then presented with the opportunity to resign.” (To read the full text of Phillips’ letter, click here.)

Phillips chose to be fired. She described her decision as “a small act of protest to the unfairness of this action.”

A spokeswoman for the Public Education Department did not respond to requests for comment on Phillips’ firing. Attempts to speak to Phillips about her letter were unsuccessful, too. 

The department’s website still lists Phillips as the assistant secretary for Native American education. It also lists her as a member of the Tohono O’odham nation.

Phillips came to the PED with a packed resume, including chief of staff for the Santa Fe Public Schools district.

She also has taught in Texas and has earned two masters degrees in education, one from the University of Texas, Pan American, and another from Teachers College at Columbia University.

Before coming to New Mexico, she worked at the Philadelphia School District in an administrative post.

It is unclear what led to Phillips’ termination, but it comes at a time when the education department’s relationship with the state’s Native American communities is deteriorating.

A ruling is expected soon on a lawsuit that contends the state education department isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a sufficient education for all children. The suit’s plaintiffs have cited education outcomes for low-income, Native American and English language learners

And in December 2017 tribal leaders harshly criticized Education Secretary Christopher Ruszkowski for listing Manifest Destiny among the nation’s “fundamental principles of this country” during a speech to charter schools.

New Mexico is home to 23 federally recognized tribes and Native Americans make up roughly 10 percent of the population. Manifest Destiny is viewed through a lens of conquest and a resulting cascade of federal and state laws, regulations and education policies, including the forced removal of generations of indigenous youth to boarding schools.

In her letter, Phillips cited the Manifest Destiny comments — without naming Ruszkowski — as an example of the state’s failure to include indigenous cultures in the education process.

Gov. Susana Martinez also came under criticism earlier this month by Native American lawmakers because she vetoed funding for several Native American projects in the state’s $6 billion budget.

In the letter, Phillips cited the “countless documents resulting from federal and state commissioned studies (that) highlight the glaring failures of our systems and institutions.”

While New Mexico has come a long way “in articulating an Indian education policy guiding the enactment of the Indian Education Act and defining the aspirations for our children, we have fallen short and have a very long way to go,” Phillips wrote

“But I have come to a clarifying realization that what is obvious to you, the continuation of a long history of injustice and inequity, is not always easily understood by others,” she continued in her letter. “This is many times the fundamental challenge of those who understand — through their lived experiences — and generate an outcry in these unfortunate situations. These types of actions create an environment where many dedicated and hardworking Tribal members become subjected to working under difficult circumstances.”

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