Tribal education trust fund is dead, legislative sponsor says

The sponsor of a proposal to create a trust fund that would’ve given tribes in New Mexico millions of dollars to build education programs said Wednesday that he is pulling the bill from the Senate, meaning it is effectively dead. 

With less than 24 hours in the 2024 legislative session, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, says he decided to pull House Bill 134 after learning a number of amendments were going to be introduced on the Senate floor. 

The proposal would have created a trust fund with a $50 million appropriation, generating interest for the 23 tribes in New Mexico to spend on language programs and other needs related to education. It garnered bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, and a number of tribal leaders, Indigenous students, and educators spoke about how impactful it would be at committee hearings throughout the legislative session. But how the money would be distributed was the source of significant debate this year — and in the 2023 legislative session, when Lente unsuccessfully pushed for the fund. The Navajo Nation in particular had concerns about how to ensure the funds were distributed equitably. 

“As much as I thought that we were good to go and how it’s received so much support through the House process and even through Senate Finance,” Lente said, “we’ve come to a point where the discussion amongst tribes is a bit too great for me to want to comfortably have that discussion publicly in the Senate and I don’t think it’s fair for tribes to be put in that position.”Lente would not say where the Senate amendments came from and what they would do. But he said he’s asked Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth to not pull it up for debate in the Senate “out of respect for the tribes.” 

“I want to make sure that I respect 100% the tribal sovereignty of each pueblo, nation and tribe in New Mexico.

Governor says she’ll push for tribal education trust fund

As New Mexico lawmakers decide how to prioritize spending during another year of historic revenue, Pueblo leaders say they “do not appreciate” being forced to choose between a tribal education trust fund and money for infrastructure on tribal lands. 

A letter Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sent late last week asking for their input on funding priorities put them in that position, they told her in a letter Wednesday. Having to pick one or the other is “fundamentally wrong and adverse to the commitments of partnership that we have made with you and state legislative leadership,” wrote the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 19 Pueblos in New Mexico and one in Texas. 

Instead, each initiative should be funded at $50 million, the council wrote. 

In response to questions from New Mexico In Depth on Thursday, the governor’s office provided the letter from the council and said the governor will work with the Legislature to deliver on the council’s request. 

It’s the first indication that Lujan Grisham will back the trust fund proposal, which would give tribes more money and control over how they educate their own children. 

But it’s not a total win. 

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, stands in his office at the Roundhouse on Jan. 25, 2023. Lente, chair of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, is sponsoring a proposal designed to give tribes more money and control over the education of Indigenous children. Credit: Bella Davis/New Mexico In Depth

The fund’s sponsor, Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, is seeking a $100 million trust fund, rather than $50 million. 

The House Budget includes $50 million, following the Legislative Finance Committee’s recommendation before the legislative session began.

New Mexico AG says he’s going after school discipline and Yazzie-Martinez to protect children

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez said he is ready to “test the limits” of whether the state constitution gives him the authority to assume control of the state’s defense in the 2018 Yazzie-Martinez court case, but hopes it doesn’t come to that. “That is something we will do if we have to, but again my hope in this is  that we start having conversations,” Torrez said during an on-camera interview with New Mexico In Depth and New Mexico In Focus (NMiF) on Thursday. 

Last month, Torrez announced his intention to take over the landmark case due to the “slow progress” by the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in presenting a plan to reform the state’s public schools. Then-state District Court Judge Sarah Singleton ruled in 2018 — before her death the following year — that the state of New Mexico had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learning, disabled and low-income children. In response to Torrez on Friday afternoon, Caroline Sweeney, a spokesperson for the governor, said: “We have never challenged the AG’s authority to represent the state. It is our understanding that the Attorney General has not had any conversations with leadership at the Public Education Department, and we would be happy to brief him on the exhaustive work the Department has undertaken to improve education in New Mexico.”

If the governor does decide to dispute Torrez’s bid to take over the case, it remains unclear who would settle the question, although the courts are a likely venue.

NM Attorney General seeks control over state response to Yazzie-Martinez

New Mexico Attorney General Raúl Torrez wants to take over the state’s “slow progress” in reforming public education to ensure all children are sufficiently educated as required by a landmark 2018 court ruling. The judge in that lawsuit found the state had violated the educational rights of Native American, English language-learners, disabled and low-income children. 

“There is frustration with the lack of progress over the past five years,” Torrez told New Mexico In Depth on Friday. “We’ve informed the governor’s office that we intend to resume control over the Yazzie-Martinez litigation.” 

Since the 2018 ruling, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has resisted efforts for deep reforms to public education sought by plaintiffs in the lawsuit and a coalition of advocacy organizations pushing for changes. In 2020, it asked a state judge to end court oversight of the case, saying the state had fully complied with the 2018 ruling. The judge denied that request, however, saying oversight should stay in place until long-term reforms are adopted.Caroline Sweeney, spokesperson for Lujan Grisham, defended her administration’s work to resolve the Yazzie-Martinez lawsuit, pointing to significantly increased public school funding, the creation of new state agencies focused on special and early education, and increasing required instructional hours.

New Mexico expands restorative justice pilot project

A state pilot program to implement a new discipline approach called restorative justice will expand from 12 to 24 schools in the coming year, according to program coordinator Emma Green. 

Green appeared on the local public affairs show New Mexico In Focus last week, explaining restorative justice as a philosophical shift away from zero tolerance, exclusionary, traditional punitive model and a shift when possible toward accountability-based consequences. It brings together the person harmed and the person who did the harm to determine how to make it right, she said. 

“I have done over 300 talking circles,” Green said, “And I have never seen more accountability in any human than when somebody understands that they harmed someone else, that maybe they didn’t understand the ripple effect of their action.” 

New Mexico In Depth published a story earlier this month about restorative justice to explore new approaches to school discipline after finding that Indigenous students in New Mexico disproportionately experience harsher punitive discipline than other student groups. Executive Director Trip Jennings joined Green and NMiF Executive Producer Jeff Proctor to discuss that work and how restorative justice is gaining a foothold in New Mexico schools:

Growing number of NM schools pursue restorative justice to keep kids in schools

On a brisk February morning with snow on the ground, children arrived at Tsé Bit A’í Middle School in Shiprock, on the Navajo Nation in northwestern New Mexico. Word in the hallway was something was afoot: Substitute teachers were waiting in each classroom. 

The children’s 35 regular teachers were spotted, sitting in a large circle in the library. Students paused at the doorway to watch. The teachers, along with school counselors, were training in a new disciplinary approach, often referred to as “restorative justice,” which seeks to rebuild relationships, not simply punish the student who caused the harm. It’s a model New Mexico’s state education department has begun testing with a pilot project in a few other school districts.  

Rooted in the belief that everybody has a role to play in addressing harm, restorative justice largely relies on people talking and listening carefully to one another.

Gallup school discipline event generates large turnout, passionate conversations

Dozens of people turned out April 1 to discuss, sometimes passionately, even angrily, the high rates of harsh discipline of Native students meted out by the Gallup-McKinley Public Schools district. Sponsored by news organizations New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica, in collaboration with  the McKinley Community Health Alliance, the turnout of about 70 people, mostly Navajo, at the University of New Mexico’s Gallup campus, showcased community interest generated by a story New Mexico In Depth and ProPublica published in December. The news outlets found that Native American students are expelled from New Mexico’s public schools far more frequently than other student groups, in large part due to practices at the Gallup-McKinley County Schools district. Seventy people turned out for a discussion of school discipline on April 1, 2023 in Gallup, NM. Credit: Tara Armijo-Prewitt

Gallup-McKinley, which enrolls more Native students than any other public school district in the country, has expelled children at least 10 times as often as the rest of the state in recent years.

Lawmaker wants to bar most early childhood school suspensions and expulsions

A child plays in an activity area of the New Mexico PreK class at Berrendo Elementary in Roswell. Xchelzin Pena/New Mexico In Depth

New Mexico lawmakers are debating a bill that would curtail expulsions and out-of-school suspensions for the state’s youngest students. National studies show that children in child care and preschool programs are at least three times more likely than older children to be expelled. The bill would bar out-of-school suspensions for children younger than 8 years old, except in cases where the child threatened, attempted or caused bodily injury to another individual that was not in self-defense. And none of those suspensions would be allowed to exceed three days.

Tribal education trust fund on hold until next year, when sponsor predicts it’ll have more support

Advocates of a proposed trust fund that would give New Mexico’s tribes more money and freedom to build out their own education departments have agreed to abandon efforts to get $50 million into this year’s budget in return for making a much larger ask in 2024.The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from Sandia Pueblo, framed the decision Thursday afternoon as a strategic one.“…do we take the initial $50 million investment this year” or go for more money next year “knowing I will have a seat at the LFC table,” Lente said. 

Lente, as the new chairman of the House Taxation and Revenue Committee, will join powerful lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee this year to shape what will become the 2024-25 state budget. 

He hopes to use those months to educate and create support from other policy makers and legislators for the trust fund and the amount needed, he said. The original hope for the fund of $250 million was scaled down this year to $50 million, an amount many observers questioned as too little to generate enough money for the state’s 23 tribes.The idea for the trust fund is that tribes would use annual interest earned on the money for language revitalization efforts, resources such as internet access, and career readiness programs, among other priorities. The annual revenue stream would give tribes greater autonomy to shape their own education programs. 

House Speaker Javier Martínez, D-Albuquerque, and budget committee chairman Nathan Small, D-Las Cruces, have given him assurances that the education trust fund proposal will be part of the 2024 budget discussions, Lente added.Martínez confirmed Lente’s understanding of next year’s budget process, saying lawmakers would “absolutely” talk about the education trust fund with plans to ask for much more than $50 million. “That’s been my life’s work,” Martínez said, speaking of his efforts to tackle entrenched problems created by historic neglect of the needs of underserved communities. Lente spoke of his ascension to the House’s tax committee chairmanship as part of a “paradigm shift happening in the House” this year — a shift “that is creating opportunities we’ve never had before,” Lente said. 

On the first day of this year’s session Martínez was elected House speaker and chose new people to chair several House committees, including Lente and Small, who replaced the longtime chairwoman of the House budget committee.

Gallup School Superintendent Says Changing a Label Explains Away Its Harsh Native Student Discipline. It Doesn’t.

At New Mexico in Depth and ProPublica, we practice “no surprises” journalism: No one should read anything about themselves in our articles without first having had a chance to respond. 

So journalists in our newsrooms were surprised to read in the Gallup Sun, a weekly newspaper, that the superintendent of Gallup-McKinley County Schools had criticized our story about his school district. We had given him ample opportunity to respond to our reporting, but the Sun did not give us that opportunity in turn. 

Superintendent Mike Hyatt told the Sun and school board members that he ignored our requests to talk to him because he believed we had a predetermined narrative. That’s not the case. ProPublica, a national nonprofit investigative news outlet, partnered with New Mexico In Depth, a state-based nonprofit news organization, to look at school discipline across New Mexico. We wanted to understand what was driving high rates of discipline for Native American students in the state.