Is ‘dismal’ the best education New Mexicans can expect?

Families fight for multicultural, bilingual and educational equity in the face of governmental evasion.

Wilhelmina Yazzie decided to sue the state of New Mexico after years of frustration with her son’s education. Parents were asked to donate old socks to wipe the dry-erase boards. Students weren’t allowed to bring textbooks home because there weren’t enough of them. Teachers left so frequently that a constant carousel of substitutes had to run the classes.

Yazzie’s son, Xavier, had been earning straight A’s and was active in sports. In third grade, however, Xavier scored below grade level on statewide and national achievement tests. “I would go in and they would tell me, ‘Yeah, he’s still below his grade level,’ and I’m like, ‘How is this happening?’ ” Yazzie said.

Xavier attends school in New Mexico’s Gallup-McKinley district, on the edge of the Navajo Nation. A majority of the district’s students are Indigenous, speak English as a second language, or come from low-income families. As state courts later found, the district exemplifies New Mexico’s systemic failure to provide students with even the most fundamental necessities, let alone the culturally and linguistically relevant education to which they are entitled by law. 


In 2014, the same year that Yazzie, several other families and six school districts filed their lawsuit, almost 95% of fourth-grade English-language learners were not proficient in reading or in math. Almost 94% of 11th-grade students were not proficient in reading, while 97% lacked proficiency in math. The year before, the New Mexico Public Education Department reported that almost 67% of all students in the Gallup-McKinley district were not proficient in reading. Among English-language learners, that number was closer to 87%.  

New Mexico routinely ranks last in the nation when it comes to the well-being of its children and their chances for success, and experts say this amplifies the consequences for “at-risk’ students — even honor roll students like Xavier. 

He’s getting good grades,” Yazzie recalled officials saying, with the underlying message left unspoken: “What more do you want?”

Wilhelmina Yazzie goes for an early-morning hike with her partner and children. To fill the gaps left by their public education, the family embraces experiential learning about the landscape, their history and language.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News

When Yazzie decided to sue the state, she was thinking of more than her own children; she cared about all the children in the community. “My mother instilled that in us,” she said, “that we’re all a family within the community and within our nation, and that we need to look out for one another and especially for our children.”

So, in 2014, Yazzie sued, claiming that New Mexico failed to provide a uniform and sufficient system of free public schools, and demanding that the state implement an adequate education budget and distribute the money equitably. In 2017, the case went to trial and lasted eight weeks, over the course of which plaintiffs produced a staggering amount of evidence, including over 3,000 exhibits and testimony from more than 100 witnesses. In 2018, the state’s 1st Judicial District Court ruled in Yazzie’s favor. “It wasn’t just about my son,” said Yazzie. “It was about all the other children who were struggling more than my son.”

“It wasn’t just about my son. It was about all the other children who were struggling more than my son.”

Yazzie’s win proved instrumental in spotlighting the state’s desolate education system, and may yet catalyze real change — but only if courts are able to hold the state accountable. So far, the Land of Enchantment has resisted this court-mandated change.

The children who will benefit most from the court ruling make up nearly three-quarters of the state‘s student population. In 2017, nearly 72% came from low-income families, and nearly 15% had disabilities, while another 13% were English-language learners. Another 11% were Indigenous. All four groups are classified as “at-risk” for the purposes of the state’s funding formula, meaning that they are supposed to receive additional resources, but that their allotment is woefully inadequate. 

Jefferson Elementary School in the Gallup-McKinley district. In the district, 67% of all students tested not proficient in reading.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News

“Statistics don’t lie,” said Rep. Derrick J. Lente, D-Sandia Pueblo. “When you look at our state, Native American and Hispanic kids are always at the bottom of the list when it comes to their proficiency in English, math and science ... and we’re the highest when it comes to dropout rates.” 

In July of 2018, New Mexico’s 1st Judicial District Court declared the state’s education system a dismal failure. The court ordered the state to address the problem immediately, and it called for increased funding, extended learning opportunities, including summer and after-school programs, smaller class sizes, quality pre-kindergarten, dual language support, social services, and better teacher recruitment and retention. Notably, it also called for the development of culturally and linguistically relevant curricula. 

The state was told to implement reforms by April 15, 2019, but that deadline has come and gone, and the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) says there’s been almost no real change in the classrooms. “The court ruled that our school system is broken, that the constitutional rights of our students are being violated, and that massive change is required to fix our school system,” said Gail Evans, NMCLP's lead counsel for the Yazzie plaintiffs. “So far, the state’s response has been to do business as usual.

“(New Mexico is) nickel-and-diming our children,” Evans added. 

The court also ruled that the state had violated students’ constitutional rights, as well as New Mexico's Indian Education Act and Bilingual Multicultural Education Act — laws that have been on the books since 2003 but never adequately funded or implemented, Evans said. 

“(New Mexico is) nickel-and-diming our children.”

The ruling gave New Mexico a watershed opportunity to redress problems in educational policy that have plagued it since it first achieved statehood, but policymakers have long disagreed over how to serve a student population that is one of the most culturally and linguistically varied in the entire United States. Educational reform bills were proposed in the Legislature in both 2019 and 2020, some outlining strategies to bring the state into compliance with the court's decision. While many of those bills received majority or unanimous votes in the House, when they reached the Senate, they were either voted down or not heard at all. This includes a bill that would have supplied internet to libraries in Indigenous communities. “It’s shameful that this state has not invested in broadband access, said Rebecca Blum-Martinez, an expert witness for the Yazzie plaintiffs who worked with the NMCLP during the 2019 session. “Especially in terms of Indigenous children out on the reservations, a lot of them don’t have any access to the internet. What are they supposed to do then?”

While legislators increased education funding by 16% (roughly $450 million) for the state’s 89 school districts in 2019, the increase fell short of pre-2008 recession spending levels, and a majority of the money went to increasing teachers’ salaries — a crucial step, but one that left the districts with almost no resources with which to implement programming. New Mexico teacher salaries are still among the lowest in the nation, and according to Evans, many districts have been forced to cut programs.

“We have to make some really substantial changes in our educational system so that we can allow our students to become college- and career-ready,” said Rep. Lente. “If we don’t, we’ll have a continued system that directly relates to the highest number of unemployment, health disparities and societal disparities. It’s a cycle, so we have to be able to cure that somehow.”

In January 2020, Lente sponsored a bill that would include appropriations for pueblos and tribal nations in the state, in response to the Yazzie lawsuit. It died along with most of the proposed education bills, a failure that Lente called “a resounding embarrassment.”

Meanwhile, the 2019 New Mexico Public Education Department’s Math and Science Annual Report shows that Anglo third-graders showed proficiency at over twice the rate of Indigenous, Hispanic and African American students. Results for other grades and subjects also indicate that students of color are not being served equitably.

Wilhelmina Yazzie embraces her daughter while on a hike near Gallup. During the COVID-19 lockdown, Yazzie has been teaching her children about the landscape, plants and animals around them.
Sharon Chischilly/High Country News

In March 2020, the state moved to dismiss the case, citing the increase in budget since the 2018 ruling and arguing that the court should determine whether or not the state has complied with the order, not whether the education system is constitutional. The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The state’s motion was heard and denied on June 29, 2020. The court chose not to order the state to develop a comprehensive plan to reform education at this time, but granted plaintiffs’ motion for discovery concerning the status of compliance. 

“This pandemic should be an eye-opener for us, our lawmakers, our legislators, the state — that we really need to make our children a priority,” said Yazzie. She adds that many students, particularly those in Indigenous communities, lack internet access and are completely unable to continue their education due to the coronavirus.

Yazzie lives with her partner and their three children in Gallup. She said her children still aren’t able to bring textbooks home; their schools remain in desperate need of resources, and the promised culturally or linguistically relevant curricula are nowhere in sight. And yet, she remains hopeful; she and her partner are taking time during the lockdown to teach their children their own language. “It brings joy to me, when they talk back to me in our language; my little one is able to actually sing songs, and the song that she sings is called Shi’ naasha’.” 

Looking ahead and thinking of her daughter, Yazzie said that an ideal school would be equitable, support multicultural students, and offer a curriculum that helps students to learn about themselves, their history and their language — a place where children would be educated holistically.

Yazzie and her family remain hopeful. “I always tell my kids, ‘Dream.’ It’s possible. T’áá hwó’ ají t’éego — that’s a Navajo saying that it’s all up to you.” 

Annabella Farmer is a student at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.