Op-Ed: When Native Students Succeed, NM Thrives

By Rep. Stephanie Garcia Richard, D-Los Alamos
Chairwoman of the House Education Committee
Rep. Derrick J. Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo


When Native American students succeed, the state of New Mexico thrives. This principle was the driving force behind House Bill 484. House Bill 484 would have provided a mechanism for New Mexico’s Native American students to obtain the culturally relevant support they need to achieve academic success, helping to close the achievement gap and instilling the importance of education after high school.


But last week, Gov. Susana Martinez vetoed this critical measure, a bill that passed with strong bipartisan support in both the House and Senate. Citing the potential costs, the governor decided that at a time when our state’s fiscal health is poor, we should close the door to additional federal funding and better outcomes for our students.


Rep. Derrick J. Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo 

The costs of her action are great, and it is important to explain why. 


Currently, there are more than 34,000 Native American students enrolled in school districts throughout the state. It has long been recognized that our Native students face obstacles and adversities when receiving their education as compared to many of their peer groups. The statewide four-year graduation rate for American Indian students was an abysmal 64 percent in 2016, and their level of proficiency in reading, math and science trails their non-Native counterparts by double digit percentage points. Additionally, many Native American students in urban districts not located near tribal lands often face concerns that – without proper support and guidance for students – can serve as incredible barriers to success.


With one of the most diverse and inclusive populations in the country, New Mexico can no longer afford these failing marks and any more budget cuts. This veto comes at a time when we desperately need innovative solutions in order to dig our way out of financial crisis and into economic prosperity.


House Bill 484 would have encouraged access to much needed federal funds for all school districts by requiring districts with 25 or more Native American students to provide a needs assessment to help them qualify them for those funds. To date, only school districts located on or near tribal lands receive those dollars – about $31.4 million dollars for 23 school districts. Those funds provide vital services and resources and allow for the hiring and training of new teachers who may specialize in American Indian languages, after school tutoring, culturally relevant clubs and programs, instruction support and educational assistants. These programs and services help close the achievement gap for our Native students, instilling confidence in their abilities to learn and achieve, and better preparing them to obtain an education after high school.


At a time when New Mexico is in the midst of a fiscal crisis, the Governor has vetoed legislation that would have created the opportunity for more federal funds for our cash-strapped school districts. We can’t afford to allow politics to drive a policy agenda. While these tactics may have worked well for the Governor on the campaign trail, they are failing our parents, teachers, students and economy.


What New Mexico desperately needs are bold investments in our kids, our families and our workers. Vetoing legislation that provides opportunity for Native American students is shortsighted and does a disservice to students across our state.