A look at HB 60 and its impact on Native American language teachers

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A pay raise for New Mexico teachers received unanimous support from lawmakers in the legislative session, including Native American language teachers who achieved equal pay with a new bill signed into law.

The governor signed House Bill 60, which puts Native language teachers on the same pay scale as other teachers who teach second languages, such as Spanish and French.

"It’s shocking when you think about that: Native American languages, the first languages that predate New Mexico as a state, weren’t held in the same parity as Spanish, German, French and other Romance languages that are currently taught in schools today," noted state Rep. Derrick Lente, D-District 65. "To be able to bring that to those Native American language teachers, that pay equity – some that currently were being paid $15,000 each year full-time to teach their native tongue in the various school districts was extremely important."

Native language teachers instruct on eight Native dialects in New Mexico schools. While the pay increase is a step forward, the group Transform Education NM says there’s still a lot of work left to do to fix the state’s education system.

"We are ready to continue that work in conjunction with New Mexico leaders and the state to ensure that we are being culturally competent not only in addressing the needs and necessities of our communities but that we are also listening to them because they are the ones that hold the wisdom. They are the ones that live in those communities and understand the needs," said Cindy Nava, the executive director of Transform Education NM.

Supporters of the legislation say this first step legitimizes Native languages in New Mexico.

"The reaction from all those teachers is one of, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you for legitimizing Indigenous languages as those that are important to be taught in public school settings,’" Rep. Lente said.

About 124 Native language teachers are impacted by the legislation, which is among a series of bills introduced by Rep. Lente over the past few years. Lente visited and reached out to various nations and tribes about their concerns.

"How do we transform education for Native American students? And so from these visits, we developed pieces of legislation that have been truly transformational and truly organic in regards to how we are leading this charge that is one being led from the ground up and not a trickle-down – people not talking about how they can improve education for us, but how we can improve education for ourselves," Rep. Lente said.

Although HB 60 was signed into law, there were also a number of other bills that did not make it to the governor’s desk. Supporters say it comes down to policy changes – such as policy changes, funding and infrastructure investments – not just for the younger students but also in higher education.

"As long as we are funded in a way that actually serves our communities, we will be able to carry out the work that needs to be done," Nava said, "so we are here with open arms to work with the leaders with tribal communities, with educators and with the state once this comprehensive plan is out."

"We’re also looking at the continuation of trying to ensure that those in higher educational settings have the capacity to support their students as well," Rep. Lente said. "Those at UNM, NMSU and Highlands University have the capacity to engage and support some of those Native American programs that are already in place today and that they have the adequate funding to support those initiatives."

Last fall, Bernalillo Public Schools increased the salary for their Native language teachers last fall. Now, HB 60 makes sure all districts do the same.

More information on House Bill 60.