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Advocates: Ruling holds promise for Native American students

SANTA FE, N.M. — It’s being billed as a landmark ruling that could reshape New Mexico’s education system and how it gets funded.

Some advocates and policy experts say Native American students are among those who could benefit the most as the state has been tasked by a district judge to follow through with promises made years ago under New Mexico’s Indian Education Act.

Adopted in 2003, the act calls for an equitable and culturally relevant learning environment in schools that serve Native American students. The goal was to boost academic performance and promote culture, but the ruling issued last week found that New Mexico has fallen short of its obligations.

It will be up to New Mexico’s governor and legislators to come up with a fix that will undoubtedly require more money and policy changes.

Regis Pecos, co-director of the Leadership Institute at Santa Fe Indian School, said the ruling provides a monumental opportunity for tribes in New Mexico – and potentially elsewhere – to define their vision of what education should look like.

Pecos talked about the troubled past between tribes and the U.S. government, and efforts of assimilation that started more than a century ago with the establishment of boarding schools.

The effects continue to be felt, he said, pointing to high dropout rates, truancy problems and suicides among Native American youth.

“This decision now affirms and validates what we have known for decades, and now is a new beginning, a new era,” Pecos said, prompting cheers from a crowd that gathered Monday near downtown Albuquerque to celebrate the ruling.

Congress took a hard look at the hurdles faced by Native students, detailing inadequate facilities, irrelevant curriculums and indifferent attitudes in a 1969 report that included numerous recommendations. Passage of the federal Indian Education Act soon followed.

In the years since, more than a dozen states – from New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada in the Southwest to others across the Plains – have passed their own laws or set mandates to address the needs of Indian students.

But expectations have yet to be met.

Nationally, only 22 percent of Native American fourth-graders met proficiency levels in math, according to a 2016 report by the National Indian Education Association. That dropped to 17 percent for eighth-graders.

The group also reported that nearly one-third of Indian students attend high-poverty schools and many live in isolated areas miles from the nearest school.

In Montana and Utah, the report says Native American students are more likely to be expelled than their white peers.

The situation is similar across Indian Country as general health, welfare and infrastructure issues present challenges to teaching and learning, said Bryan Brayboy, a professor at Arizona State University.

Even a 45-minute bus ride down a long, dusty, unpaved road to and from school every day can take a toll on a child’s ability to learn, he said.

While the judge in New Mexico wants state leaders to ensure an equitable education for all students by next April, there are still many unanswered questions and policy experts say it could take years to reshape the system.

“We’re used to saying we want year-over-year improvement and it needs to be better and get fixed right away,” Brayboy said. “Well, the truth is this is 150 years in the making. The expectation you can fix it in a few years isn’t entirely fair.”

State education officials say New Mexico has made progress as Native American students marked record gains this year in math and reading proficiency.

They also say more money than ever before is being spent on public schools and that overall graduation rates have reached a high of 71 percent.

Ahniwake Rose, executive director of the National Indian Education Association, said the ruling is drawing more attention to the existing disparities in Indian education.

“New Mexico gets to serve as a turning point,” she said. “There are going to be a lot of people paying attention to how New Mexico manages this and what happens next, and more importantly how tribes are going to be at the table as those decisions are made.”