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New Mexico GOP tells schools to reject social studies change

April 13, 2022 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — A Republican lawmaker is telling New Mexico school districts to defy state education rules and ignore newly overhauled K-12 social studies standards enacted by the state’s education department, calling them racially divisive.

The standards were the first complete overhaul of history, geography, economics, and social studies since 2001. In addition to race, they added sections, including LGBT history, the 9/11 attacks and personal finance. Some other states, however, have restricted the teaching of race in moves that New Mexico Republicans have cheered. They see the issue as a potent one in this years gubernatorial race.

“As local school officials, you are morally obligated to reject these standards and to proceed serving your community as the autonomous school official you were elected to serve as,” wrote State House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, in the letter, shared Tuesday by Republican officials.

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The letter marks an escalation in the politics of education in New Mexico because it urges school boards to ignore state rules codified by the Legislature and enforced by the education department.

By law, the Public Education Department sets education standards. School districts are funded by the Legislature with the expectation that they follow them.

Following a rulemaking process with public input, the education department increased the focus on Native American history, and required students to learn more about the role of privilege and race in public life.

Education officials say the implementation of new standards in fall of 2023 will increase inclusivity in the classroom and prepare students to live in an increasingly multicultural society.

About half of New Mexico is Hispanic, and around 10% of residents are Native American.

It’s unclear what all-out defiance against the social studies standards Montoya is calling for would look like.

School districts are free to choose their textbooks and the overall content of their lessons. For example, the standards require students to evaluate “the role of race and racism in the acts of land redistribution” during European and U.S. conquests of the Southwest. But school districts decide how students learn those concepts.

Montoya, who is Hispanic, didn’t elaborate in the letter and has not responded to a request for comment.

It’s also unclear how the state would respond if school leaders found a way to reject the standards outright.

In a statement, education department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said that public schools are “charged with implementing the standards through specific, locally designed curriculum,” but declined to comment on what would happen if they didn’t do that.

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School board leaders are elected locally but can be fired by the Public Education Department.

It removed one school board last August after it voted to make masks and social distancing optional, directly contradicting Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s health order at the time. It removed another board over alleged violations of ethics and transparency laws.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.