Lawmakers will again push for more tribal control over how Indigenous children are educated 

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A school bus takes students home in rural New Mexico. Illustration: Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth

A proposal to create a trust fund that would give tribes in New Mexico more money and control to run their own education programs is back for the 2024 legislative session. Supporters are optimistic about their chances this year after last year’s unsuccessful attempt to include it in the state budget.

There are reasons for optimism.

Tucked into the Legislature’s proposed $10.1 billion budget is $50 million for the new fund. Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, says top lawmakers have assured him the fund will get another $50 million, for $100 million total, during the 30-day session.

The question is whether Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will go along. 

If the $100 million request navigates the sometimes-perilous budgeting process successfully, tribes would use annual interest earned on the fund for language revitalization efforts and career readiness programs, among other needs

“What we want in tribal communities is for our elders, our own people to teach our children about what’s important to our communities,” Lente told New Mexico In Depth. “We need to be fluent in our language. We need to know how our government works. Without this type of programming, we’re just going to continue to be assimilated into Western society.” 

Starting in 1819, the federal government removed Indigenous children from their families and sent them to boarding schools that were often far away from their homes. Officials attempted to strip them of their cultures, including by punishing them for speaking their languages and renaming them with English names. 

Studio portraits of Benjamin Thomas (Wat-ye-eh), Mary Perry (Ki-ot-se), and John Menaul (Kowsh-te-ah) Laguna Pueblo in “before” and “after” photographs, included in an extensive repository of images and documents related to students who attended Carlisle Indian School.

Even after the policy ended about 50 years ago, state and federal control over education funding has limited tribes’ ability to teach their children.

In New Mexico — which had the third-highest concentration of federal boarding schools, according to a 2022 report from the Interior Department — tribes can apply for grants from the state under the Indian Education Act. They’re required to spend the money within a year. 

That’s challenging, experts say, partly because the Public Education Department can be slow to process the money, which advocates say isn’t enough to begin with. When the money does come out, many tribes don’t have the staffing levels needed to quickly use it due to underfunding. 

The trust fund, while not meant to replace the Indian Education Act, would empower tribes to build sustainable programs by providing reliable funding that would go to them directly, beginning in fiscal year 2026. 

Lente argues lawmakers have to act on the proposal now, before it’s too late.

The state has seen record revenue in recent years, largely fueled by oil and gas production, with an expected $3.48 billion surplus going into the next fiscal year. But analysts warn the windfall won’t last.

“When you talk about an opportunity, a golden opportunity, this might be it,” Lente told the Indian Affairs Committee in November. “And if we miss it, then it’s on us.” 

Regis Pecos, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and longtime education reform advocate, told the committee that if the trust fund passes, tribes would no longer have to be “begging, piecemealing our approach to be in control of the quality of education for our children.”

New Mexico has long failed Indigenous students, as a landmark 2018 court ruling, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico, highlighted, Pecos said. The trust fund would be a step toward correcting that.

Gathering support 

Last year, Lente sought $50 million to get the fund started but later pulled the bill. He’d become chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee that January, a position he planned to use to get more support from other lawmakers in the interim and make a bigger ask later. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat and member of Sandia Pueblo, represents District 65. Image from the New Mexico legislative website.

The 30-day session kicks off Tuesday, and Lente says he’s done that work. 

He is a voting member of the Legislative Finance Committee and was able to make sure $50 million for the fund is in the Legislature’s proposed budget. Lawmakers who will hold sway in the coming budget discussions have assured him he’ll get the other $50 million during the session, Lente said. 

He’s also met with the cabinet secretaries of the Public Education Department and the Indian Affairs Department, neither of whom “gave any indication that they could not support this,” Lente said. 

A spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham wouldn’t say whether the governor supports the proposal. 

“Our focus continues to be on delivering significant resources to nations, tribes and pueblos as soon as possible,” spokeswoman Maddy Hayden wrote over email, adding the governor’s budget recommendation includes $26.5 million for the Indian education fund.

Last year, the governor’s administration recommended $25.2 million go to that fund. Lawmakers ultimately appropriated $20 million.

Stumbling block

On top of the doubled investment request, the updated version of the bill would create a temporary task force made up of representatives of each of the state’s 23 tribes who would design a distribution formula. Lente made the change in part as a response to concerns that cropped up during the 2023 session.

Some observers doubted $50 million — scaled down from Lente’s initial hope for $250 million — would generate enough interest for each tribe. There were also questions over whether the proposed formula was fair, particularly to the Navajo Nation, which has a significantly larger population than any other tribe in the state. 

Under last year’s bill, 90% would have been distributed equally among the tribes and the remaining 10% would’ve been based on the number of New Mexico students each serves. 

Despite the task force addition, though, Lente faced some pushback during the November meeting of the Indian Affairs Committee. 

“You said that the task force would be formed after the legislation passes. What if the legislation passes and Navajos are not in agreement with it?” asked Rep. Anthony Allison (Diné), D-Fruitland. 

Lente said it’s been a challenge to get all the tribes on the same page on education reform, but that can’t be a reason to not take action. The task force would give each tribe a chance to have their voices heard, he said. 

Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., a Democrat from Jemez Pueblo, agreed with Lente. 

“I’d rather have a conversation about how we’re going to distribute the money when the fund is set up than not even get to the point of setting it up. We can’t get caught up in how we’re going to distribute,” Shendo said. “I know that’s what happened last year. … I don’t want this train to get derailed in the same way.” 

But Sen. Shannon Pinto (Diné), D-Tohatchi, wasn’t convinced. She said while she’s in full support of “what we’re moving forward to do in education for our children,” she couldn’t sign off on the proposal without knowing it had the backing of the Navajo Nation. She was the only committee member to vote against endorsing the bill. 

To Pinto, creating the trust fund before deciding on distribution felt like “putting the cart before the horse.”

Lente responded: “If we had substantial revenue year after year after year, and this could come and go, we could just say, ‘Well, let’s wait ‘til everybody comes to the table and maybe in 10 years we can look at this again.’ This money is not going to last 10 years.” 

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