Native leaders say tribal education trust fund would be game changer

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Keres language teachers meet on Jan. 16 in Zia Pueblo. The pueblo's education director, Marsha Leno, said a consistent source of funding would help expand language programming. Image: Bella Davis for New Mexico In Depth.

Education programs run by Native American tribes in New Mexico rely in part on money from the state, but accessing those dollars makes it difficult to complete all of the work they envision.

Tribal leaders and advocates have long lobbied for a change. This year they want to make it happen.

Each year, tribes can apply for grants, and if their applications are approved, they must spend the money first and then submit documentation to the state for reimbursement. 

On paper, it sounds straightforward. But in reality, sometimes tribes can’t spend down all the money by an artificial deadline. In fiscal year 2020-2021, 22 tribes received grants under the Indian Education Act but only two requested reimbursement for the full amount they were awarded. 

It’s a cycle that repeats year after year, hampering their ability to realize the vision of educating their own children. 

With state lawmakers heading into the 2023 legislative session with a multi-billion dollar surplus, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, said he will introduce legislation to create a $50 million tribal education trust fund that would provide tribes automatic funding every year. 

Tribes would use annual interest earned on trust fund money for language revitalization efforts, resources such as wi-fi, and career readiness programs, among other priorities. It would give tribes greater autonomy, Lente said. Tribes could develop educational services guided entirely by their own communities rather than depend on small grants the state awards for specific uses.

Native people live in two societies with different educational focuses, he said, and tribes don’t want one to overwhelm the other. 

“One being the more Western-focused society, where you go to school, you earn a diploma, you get a job, and you work at that job to sustain a family, that’s the Western style,” he told New Mexico In Depth. “But there’s also our more traditional, Indigenous style of education where you learn the language, you learn the traditions and the culture. You learn the songs, you learn the dances.”

The All Pueblo Council of Governors in November passed a resolution calling on state lawmakers to create such a fund. It’s time to make historic investments in the education and other needs of Native American children after decades of neglect, Lente and tribal leaders say. 

The need for change

There’s a profound need to improve education for Native students. 

A landmark 2018 court ruling, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, found the state has failed its constitutional duty to provide an adequate education to Native children, along with low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities, who together represent 70% of students in the state.

That failure has resulted in poor outcomes for those student populations, including the lowest graduation rate in the country and low proficiency rates in reading and math.

Despite progress in recent years, Native students continue to graduate high school at lower rates than their peers, at 71.5% compared to 76.8% for all students in 2021. 

In New Mexico’s largest school district, Albuquerque Public Schools, Native students have the lowest proficiency in reading, math, and science of any student group, according to the district’s latest Indian Education report. Math saw the worst rate of the three, with just 12.4% of Native students testing at or above proficient.   

And in 2019, only one out of 10 Native American students completed an advanced placement exam that would earn the student college credits while still in high school, according to plaintiffs in the Yazzie/Martinez lawsuit.  

Automatic year-over-year funding for tribal education departments and greater tribal control over the education of Native children are two of several recommendations in the Tribal Remedy Framework, a plan created in response to the court ruling that’s endorsed by leadership of the state’s 23 tribes, pueblos, and nations. 

A trust fund that automatically generates interest revenue for tribally-controlled education would speak to both of those demands, which are rooted in a genocidal history regarding Indian education. 

Between 1819 and 1969, the federal government operated more than 400 boarding schools designed to destroy Indigenous languages and cultures and assimilate Native children, who were taken from their families.

An untold number of children died, although the Department of the Interior has accounted for over 500 deaths according to a report published in May 2022 and expects that number could rise to the tens of thousands with continued investigation. 

Another result of the boarding school era has been a dramatic and rapid decline in the number of Native language speakers.

When the government eventually shut most of the boarding schools, many Native children went into the public school system, over which tribes, again, haven’t had authority and where children often aren’t given the opportunity to learn their heritage language. 

Take public school students in Albuquerque. 

Roughly 4,000 students affiliated with the Navajo Nation are enrolled in the city’s public schools, but as of late August, only about 200 of those students were taking Navajo language classes. 

Philip Farson, director of the district’s Indian Education Department, previously told New Mexico In Depth that the district would need to hire up to 100 Navajo language teachers over the next few years to meet the language programming needs of all Diné students. 

The district, as of October, employed six.  

There are other deficiencies as well. 

“In tribal communities, there are few programs, few services, and very limited facilities,” Lente told lawmakers at a joint meeting of the Indian Affairs and Legislative Education Study committees this fall. He and Regis Pecos, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, presented the trust fund proposal. 

“In many cases, and I think this was really brought to light by COVID, but even prior to COVID, students don’t have anywhere to go,” Lente said. “We don’t have anything on tribal lands. When you saw the pictures of the children huddled around a building outside simply to get their work done, that happened before COVID. It’s happening today still.” 

Early on in the pandemic, some Native students could be seen sitting or parked on school grounds to connect to the schools’ broadband internet because they didn’t have it at home, according to court motions filed by school superintendents related to the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez court ruling. 

Many children travel from their tribal communities to go to public schools and when they go home for the day or the weekend, they often leave behind “the opportunities and the abilities to continue to work like their peers and to learn like their peers,” Lente said.

The majority of Native children in New Mexico attend public school rather than Bureau of Indian Education operated or tribally controlled schools — 40,759 students compared to 6,704 students, respectively, during the last school year, according to the state Public Education Department’s latest tribal education status report

The goal of the trust fund isn’t to build schools in every tribal nation, Lente said, but rather educational hubs — safe spaces, with heating in the winter and cooling in the summer, that could provide, for example, internet, language classes, tutoring, and college and career readiness programs to all Native students, regardless of whether they attend school in their tribal nations or go to public school. 

In Zia Pueblo, many of those services are already available to the pueblo’s children, most of whom attend school in nearby Jemez Pueblo, Bernalillo, and elsewhere. The pueblo is currently building  an early childhood education center that will also be used occasionally for community events.

On, Jan. 16, 2023, Pueblo of Zia Governor Valentino Pino and Marsha Leno, Zia Pueblo’s education director, stand in the Pueblo’s early education center, which is under construction. Above them is the Zia sun symbol which has a sacred meaning to the people of Zia Pueblo, who have long fought against its appropriation. Image: Bella Davis for New Mexico In Depth.

Marsha Leno, Zia Pueblo’s education director, said revenue the tribe can count on every year would help grow the pueblo’s language program and staff to help guide students through an educational plan and ensure they’re receiving support in school. 

She’d also like to construct a building for her team to have offices and meeting space.  They are currently spread out in a handful of buildings. A central location, she said, would make it easier for community members to connect with services, and added tutoring and other academic assistance could also be offered there.

Those ambitions are informed by community input that Leno, who’s a member of Zia Pueblo and a Yazzie/Martinez plaintiff, said she worked hard to gather when she became director almost three years ago. 

Leno worked for two other tribal education departments before returning to her home community as an early childhood education manager and then director. 

“My thing was I was tired of making other tribal members from different tribes doctors, lawyers, sending them to school,” Leno said. “Why can’t I do it for my own people? That’s why I’m here. I want my people to be successful, too.” 

A dysfunctional system

Tribes and school districts that serve Native American students apply for annual grants from the Indian Education Fund, set up by New Mexico’s 2003 Indian Education Act, which is supposed to ensure equitable and culturally relevant education for Native children.

Education priorities identified in the grant requests vary by tribe. 

Isleta Pueblo’s priority for the roughly $92,000 it was awarded in 2020-2021, for instance, was “culture and identity development,” according to the state education department. The grant’s outcomes included 150 students engaging in Tiwa language lessons and 30 students receiving internet hotspots to continue those lessons virtually.  

Santa Ana Pueblo, which was awarded nearly $100,000, focused on college, career, and life readiness, and reported that 12 students received credit recovery support and all middle and high schoolers got access to tutoring. 

Neither pueblo requested reimbursement for the full award amounts. 

One possible reason for that: Slow processing of funds by the Public Education Department can lead to grant recipients having less time to spend the funding, according to a January 2021 progress report by Legislative Finance Committee evaluators. 

“It’s a common occurrence and that’s definitely where bureaucracy gets in the way and almost sets up tribes, education departments to fail,” Lente said.  

Between fiscal years 2018 and 2020, 29% of awards from the Indian Education Fund went unspent, according to the legislative report, which notes that grant recipients are required to submit documentation and invoices before the state releases funds. 

A 2018 report from the same committee called on the state education department to “improve the timeliness of grant administrative processes.” 

It doesn’t help that many tribal education departments are understaffed and experience high turnover due to underfunding, making spending grants even more difficult, according to a December 2020 report by the Tribal Education Alliance

Zia and Jemez Pueblo were the only tribes that requested full reimbursement in 2020-2021. 

Leno said despite Zia Pueblo’s spending the full grant amount, she’s been frustrated and at times confused by the state’s grant process, including reporting requirements. 

Grants go through a multi-stage approval process before they can be spent, which takes time away from implementation, Leno said. “Why waste our time there when we have other priorities here within our community? I know we need the funding but we need to move forward.”

State education department spokesperson Kelly Pearce wrote in an email the department “has been actively streamlining the process to ensure that it is clear and consistent, easier to navigate and faster,” but didn’t offer specifics.

There’s a need not only for consistent funding but also greater tribal control, Leno said. 

“Allow us to run our departments the way we want to run them,” she said.

Money generated by the proposed trust fund would be distributed to tribes annually based on a formula and the dollars that are unspent wouldn’t return to the state. 

Staff from the Legislative Education Study Committee and the State Investment Council, which manages investments for the state’s four permanent funds, helped develop the concept. 

“Given the nature of things in New Mexico, where oil and gas prices can drive budget cuts one year and deliver giant windfalls just a few years later, these funds help you plan for the future and help steady the ship when things get rough,” Charles Wollmann, communications director for the investment council, told lawmakers at the September meeting where Lente and Pecos presented the proposal. 

The trust fund wouldn’t replace the Indian Education Fund, Pecos said in an interview, but would add to it, empowering tribes to create sustainable, community-based programs. 

“It comes at a time when language and culture is at its most fragile state it’s ever been,” Pecos said. “And that’s because of the waves of the onslaught of policies and laws to purposefully kill language and culture to assimilate our people, but the resistance has been 150 years of pushing back…If we don’t succeed, we can see the end of language and as our elders say, when we lose language and we lose, subsequently, culture and a way of life, that will be the end of who we are as Indigenous peoples.” 

Pecos served for many years as executive director of the state Office of Indian Affairs and, later, chief of staff to the late Speaker of the state House of Representatives Ben Luján. He said that while his legislative history spans over almost 25 years, he considers the trust fund proposal to be the most important of his career.

“If we prevail, it may be the game-changer we’ve not had in the last 150 years,” Pecos said. 

Recent history, however, suggests the education trust fund might need substantial persuasion to pass muster with state lawmakers.

Lente sponsored two bills during the 2022 session that would’ve given tribes more than $40 million for education. One of the bills would have also created a recurring appropriation in the annual state budget that tribes could’ve counted on. 

That effort failed, and the Indian Education Fund got $15 million. 

The boost, while less than what Lente had sought, was a substantially greater amount than any previous year. 

Neither the Legislature’s nor Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s budget requests include funding for the education trust fund, but when asked whether the governor supports the proposal, spokesperson Nora Meyers Sackett said Lujan Grisham is asking for over $25 million, up from the current $15 million, for the Indian Education Fund. 

At the request of tribal governments, her administration is also proposing budgetary language that would extend the grant cycle to two years, Meyers Sackett said, with the state education department able to extend that time period if needed through future appropriations language.

Asked whether he’s optimistic about the trust fund proposal passing, Lente said: “I have to be. This is an initiative that we don’t take a break from.” 

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