Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

A Watershed Moment in the Education of American Indians: A Judicial Strategy to Mandate the State of New Mexico to Meet the Unique Cultural and Linguistic Needs of American Indians in New Mexico Public Schools

Academic journal article The American University Journal of Gender, Social Policy & the Law

A Watershed Moment in the Education of American Indians: A Judicial Strategy to Mandate the State of New Mexico to Meet the Unique Cultural and Linguistic Needs of American Indians in New Mexico Public Schools

Article excerpt

In 2014, several families and school districts sued the State of New Mexico for failing to provide all students a constitutionally sufficient system of education in violation of Article XII, Section 1 of the State Constitution. In the summer of 2017, the landmark case, Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico (Yazzie v. State)1 was tried before the First Judicial District Court. The Plaintiffs now await a court ruling that, if successful, would guarantee all New Mexico students a sufficient educational opportunity that prepares them to attend college, pursue a career, and participate fully in economic and political life. A particular aspect of the Yazzie case addresses the history of systemic discrimination experienced by American Indians, that intentionally sought to destroy their cultural ways of life, and the State's ongoing failure to address their unique cultural and linguistic needs.

Part I of this paper seeks to explore the various political, cultural, educational and legal underpinnings leading to Yazzie. Part II examines the history of forced assimilation of American Indians in education and the current impact of systemic discrimination of American Indian students in New Mexico. Part III examines current state and federal laws that pertain to the education of American Indians. Part IV examines the trial and litigation as it pertains to Yazzie. Part V briefly explores the various solutions and policy recommendations for improving New Mexico's education system for American Indians.

I. A Look at new Mexico: Politics, demographics, Culture, and Student Outcomes

Since its acceptance into the Union in 1912, New Mexico has been a minority-majority state, with Hispanic and Native American families and communities comprising the majority. Presently, in 34.5 percent of New Mexico homes, a language other than English is spoken, which means that many children learn English at school.2 Those who speak Spanish make up the largest other-than-English language group. However, the seven indigenous languages-Diné, Apache, Keres, Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, and Zuni-are still spoken in many of their respective communities.3 Since statehood, there have been contending views on how best to educate the majority ofNew Mexico students.4 There are those who insist on an Englishonly assimilationist policy, however, throughout its history, many Hispanic and Native American communities have resisted these efforts and have fought to gain the respect for and maintenance of their languages, cultures, and ways of life.5

This article focuses on those Native American children who come from communities where their languages are still spoken and who struggle in an educational system that does not honor nor consider their learning needs.

A. Political Climate

The agonizing need to transform the public education system in New Mexico has brewed for over a decade. Every year, two underlying themes remain constant: poor student outcomes and inadequate state funding. In 2008, for instance, an independent study by the American Institutes for Research concluded that New Mexico schools were underfunded by about $335 million,6 which, when adjusted for inflation, is over $600 million today. Further, just this year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation's Kids Count Report, which measures child wellbeing in six categories among all fifty states, ranked New Mexico's "education" the worst in the nation.7 Over the years, however, state legislation aimed at addressing these general issues has proven ineffective or piecemeal at best. Two bills, for example, that would have fully-implemented the recommendations published in the American Institutes for Research (AIR) report, such as sufficiently funding education, died in legislative committee hearings. All similar funding-sufficiency bills thereafter met a similar fate. Year after year, it seems, partisan politics, governor vetoes, and the never-ending fight for scarce resources are often to blame for the continued, broken system of education. …

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