Native leader blasts NM’s response to education lawsuit

Former Governor of Cochiti Pueblo Regis Pecos participates in a ceremony to sign the Santa Fe Entrada Proclamation in the courtyard of the Santa Fe Community Convention Center in 2018. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — Former Cochiti Pueblo Gov. Regis Pecos slammed New Mexico’s efforts to improve education for Native American students in response to a landmark court decision, describing a “fragmented” funding process for tribal education that will hamper the effectiveness of increased state spending.

In a presentation to legislators, Pecos — who has a long history in state and tribal governments — also highlighted a recent burst of turnover in top administrators at the Public Education Department and the state’s lack of Native American teachers and school leaders.

The passionate presentation came as members of the powerful Legislative Finance Committee sought an update on the state’s response to a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico is violating the rights of some students — including Native Americans — by failing to provide a sufficient education.

Legislators responded to the ruling by boosting teacher salaries in recent years, funding an extended school year and expanding early childhood education programs that prepare kids for kindergarten. The state also revised a budget formula and made other changes intended to deliver more funding to schools that serve at-risk and low-income students.

But Pecos, a member of the Cochiti Tribal Council, questioned whether the spending is effective.

“There is no evidence that dollars received by school districts,” Pecos said, “reach native students and meet their needs.”

The state, he added, hasn’t embraced legislation for a “Tribal Remedy Framework” — a plan that includes turning tribal libraries into community education hubs and investing in the preservation of native languages, among other action. It’s been endorsed by leaders of the state’s 23 nations, tribes and pueblos.

Similarly, Pecos said, much of the state funding offered to tribes is made available through grants that may not continue, interfering with efforts to build sustainable new education programs.

“This is a fragmented process,” he said.

Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, who was appointed a year after the 2018 court decision, told lawmakers that his agency has strengthened oversight of how school districts spend their funding for at-risk students.

The state also requires equity councils, he said, at every district and charter school — and at the Public Education Department itself — to help promote an equal education for every demographic group.

Broader strategies aimed at encouraging a more diverse teacher workforce, supporting Indigenous languages and extending student learning time are also underway, Stewart said.

“We’ve had a mindset shift at the Public Education Department,” he said.

Lawmakers reacted strongly to the testimony from Pecos, Stewart and others.

Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, delivered some of his remarks in Tewa — a pueblo language — and expressed disappointment that the Tribal Remedy Framework hadn’t been enacted by the state.

Native American children, he said, have been “left to rot because of where they come from” for many years.

“How much longer do our children have to fail for us to get this right?” Lente asked.

Rep. Javier Martinez, D-Albuquerque, described Pecos’ presentation as a call to action and said he had “started to question whether more money is actually needed beyond what we’ve invested.”

“I think we’re losing steam,” Martinez said of the response to the court decision. “I’d hate to be back here in 20 years talking about how nothing has changed.”

A judge in the state’s 1st Judicial District ruled in 2018 that New Mexico was violating the rights of some students — including Native Americans, English-language learners and those from low-income families — by failing to offer an adequate education.

There isn’t a clear statistical standard that would allow the state to get out of the lawsuit, a legislative analyst told lawmakers, but the ruling noted the dismal proficiency rates for students and the proficiency gaps among demographic groups.

In 2019, for example, just 30% of third-graders were proficient in reading.

The lawsuit at issue is known as the Martinez and Yazzie case, named after families involved in two lawsuits filed in 2014 and later consolidated.

“Where will you be in six months?”

Some lawmakers Friday broached the idea of making broader changes to the governance of New Mexico’s education system — in which the governor appoints a public education secretary while elected school boards throughout the state oversee individual districts and superintendents.

Among the ideas discussed were establishing an elected education chief statewide or a hybrid system of picking an education secretary similar to judicial appointments. Judges are appointed by the governor after candidates are screened by a committee, and they also stand for election.

Some lawmakers questioned Stewart about turnover within his department among high-level executives, such as deputy Cabinet secretaries.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the LFC, asked Stewart whether he, too, plans to leave.

“Where will you be in six months?” she asked.

“I think you’re stuck with me for a little while longer if that’s what you’re asking,” Stewart responded.

Stewart, the first African American to hold New Mexico’s top education job, was appointed in August 2019 following the abrupt dismissal of his predecessor, Karen Trujillo.

He is a former algebra and science teacher who has served in executive positions for the Philadelphia school district and a national nonprofit education group.

Pecos leaves staff position

Pecos announced at the meeting that he had stepped down as senior adviser to House Majority Leader Sheryl Williams Stapleton, D-Albuquerque.

He said he left to protest “what is happening with” the Legislative Education Study Committee, where the staff director, Rachel Gudgel, was accused of making disparaging remarks about Native Americans.

A committee vote to fire Gudgel failed this week on a 5-5 tie.

Earlier this summer, Gudgel apologized for “isolated, insensitive comments” but defended her track record as a legislative analyst, saying she had worked for the success of all students, specifically Native American students, throughout her career.

What she is accused of saying and whether the allegations were substantiated aren’t clear. Legislative staff denied a Journal records request for a report on the investigation.

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