Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Legislators plunged into a rather personal debate Thursday over how to teach New Mexico students about race and inequity as they traded family stories of discrimination and poverty.
They spoke of interracial marriage, the removal of Indigenous children from their communities, and pride in Spanish language and culture – often in testy exchanges over how to accurately present New Mexico history.
The debate was touched off by a staff presentation on new academic standards going into effect next year.
Republicans repeatedly questioned whether administrators in the Public Education Department had tried to inject elements of critical race theory into the curriculum – a contention the department flatly disputed.
Democrats, in turn, suggested Republicans wanted to sanitize history.
Sen. Harold Pope Jr., an Albuquerque Democrat and the first African American elected to the state Senate, said he was “ashamed” of some of the discussion. It’s hurtful, he said, to hear legislators downplay the legacy of slavery and suggest racial conflict was confined to the past.
“I’m really disgusted by the political posturing on this,” he said.
House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said no one objects to teaching students about history – the good and the bad. But the curriculum, he said, shouldn’t ignore the progress that’s been made just “because of things that happened years and years ago that nobody in the room had anything to do with.”
Students, Montoya said, shouldn’t be made to feel guilty or angry over past mistreatment.
“If we’re going to teach this to children, if we’re going to teach them things are stacked against you,” he said, “I think that’s a disservice.”
The updated social studies standards were crafted over the past year with input from teachers, parents and others.
They touch on Spanish colonization, inequity in the history of the United States, and the removal and return of Indigenous people in New Mexico.
But districts and charter schools, officials said, are free to craft the specific curriculum and choose the instructional materials that best fit their community.
At 105 pages, the standards cover financial literacy and a host of other topics that attracted little attention in Thursday’s hearing of the Legislative Education Study Committee, a bipartisan panel of state lawmakers.
Gwen Perea Warniment, a deputy secretary of public education, characterized the standards as an honest, apolitical attempt to boost academic standards and provide a culturally appropriate curriculum to students from all backgrounds.
It’s appropriate, she said, for students, at an appropriate age, to learn that the arrival of conquistadors came with both “destruction and creation.”
“It can be an insult to our students and our families to say they cannot handle these truths,” Perea Warniment said. “We believe they are stronger than that.”
The standards hadn’t been updated since 2009, she said.
The changes, Perea Warniment said, are partly a response to a 2018 court ruling that found New Mexico had failed to provide a sufficient education to all students, especially English language learners and Native Americans.
Full implementation of the new standards is set for the 2023-24 school year.
Lawmakers responded to the presentation with their own personal stories.
State Rep. Derrick Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo, described what it was like to go to class as a child and feel encouraged to idolize such historical figures as Christopher Columbus – with no mention at school of Popé, leader of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt.
Lente pushed back on the notion that racial conflict was a thing of the past. He said he was called a “dirty Indian” and a “savage” three years ago after presenting legislation to replace Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day.
Students, Lente said, deserve an accurate accounting of state history.
“You should be given the opportunity to learn about the place you call home,” he said, “or the place my people have called home since time immemorial.”
Montoya, the Republican whip, described the success of his own parents, who he said had little education, but went on to run a number of small businesses.
“They didn’t have equity,” he said. “What they had was a belief that the situation they were in today wasn’t the end of the story.”
The presentation and debate lasted about two hours.
No one proposed legislation or official action on the issue.
Five Republican legislators earlier this year proposed a bill seeking to prohibit the teaching of certain concepts – such as that social problems are created by racist societal structures or systems – but it died without action.
It isn’t clear whether the bill would have affected the social studies standards. Perea Warniment said critical race theory isn’t part of the standards.