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Manifest Destiny comment criticized

New Mexico public education chief Christopher Ruszkowski has drawn criticism and national media attention for citing Manifest Destiny among the “fundamental principles of this country” during a speech praising charter school options.

Christopher Ruszkowski

The Washington Post ran a story last week on Ruszkowski’s statement that the United States is built on “freedom, choice, competition, options, going west, Manifest Destiny,” making charter school options “quintessentially American.”

Ruszkowski made the comments Dec. 9 during the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools’ annual conference, which was covered by the Journal.

Tribal leaders have bristled at the PED secretary-designate’s reference to Manifest Density, a 19th-century concept that justified conquest and disenfranchisement of Native peoples.

“This is utterly disgraceful, lacking any sensitivity, understanding and appreciation of the atrocious impacts of Manifest Destiny upon generations of our people,” E. Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, wrote in a Dec. 14 letter to Ruszkowski. “The least that our children, their parents and our leaders deserve is an apology for those comments.”

Learning Alliance New Mexico sent a similar letter, co-signed by a variety of groups, including New Mexico Voices For Children, Equality New Mexico, Native American Voters Alliance and the SouthWest Organizing Project, as well as congressional candidate Debra Haaland and state Rep. Georgene Louis, the first Pueblo woman to serve in the Legislature.

Ruszkowski responded by reaching out to “every tribal leader in the state to express remorse for the poorly phrased historical reference and to clarify that portion of his speech,” according to PED spokeswoman Lida Alikhani. He also met with the vice president of the Navajo Nation and several other tribal leaders in person.

“I reject any doctrine, past or present, that stands in the way of making excellent schools a reality for all of our children, and stand alongside all of New Mexico’s children, families, educators, and tribal leaders who are fighting for schools that are both higher performing academically and more culturally and linguistically responsive,” Ruszkowski said in an emailed statement. “We must continue to partner and collaborate on behalf of our children.”

Alikhani said Ruszkowski’s speech was intended to leverage historical lessons “to empower educators and do better for our students and to fight for social justice for all.”

During his 30 minutes of remarks, Ruszkowski mentioned Manifest Destiny once and touched on a variety of other topics, such as educational systems in various countries and his teaching experience in an inner city Boston charter school.

Charles Bowyer, National Education Association New Mexico executive director, said referencing Manifest Destiny “without even attempting an explanation of the historical context was wrong, period.”

“It’s unthinkable that the person in charge of public education would use language that so many of our students and educators find demeaning,” he said in an emailed statement.

Stephanie Ly, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said the comment reveals that Ruszkowski – a native Midwesterner who became PED chief in June 2017 – has a “deep lack of understanding and insensitivity to New Mexico’s unique history and present educational reality.”

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