New Mexico’s education chief is being blasted for linking the growth of charter schools to the controversial 19th-century idea of American expansion known as Manifest Destiny. Even after he apologized to American Indian leaders, criticism of his remarks has persisted.

At a conference in December, Education Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski said school choice, which is championed by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is “quintessentially American.”

“This is a country built over the last 250 years on things like freedom, choice, competition, options, going west, Manifest Destiny — these are the fundamental principles of this country,” he was reported as saying by the Albuquerque Journal. “That’s why charter schools make so much sense — high-quality options — in the context of where we are as a country.”

He also rejected suggestions from Democrats and progressive educators that the United States should look to other countries with successful education systems — such as high-achieving Finland — for ideas to reform the American public school systems. “I hate to put it this bluntly, but this isn’t Finland,” he said. “You can’t redesign as if we were Finland. Too late. This country wasn’t built that way.”

Leaders of American Indian nations said they were “appalled and deeply offended” by the reference to Manifest Destiny, and said the remarks lacked “any sensitivity, understanding and appreciation of the atrocious impacts of Manifest Destiny upon generations of our people.”

Manifest Destiny describes the notion that the United States was destined by God to dominate North America. The United States grew through territorial expansion in the first part of the 1800s, but that expansion also sparked a war with Mexico, expanded slavery and led to the systematic relocation and brutalization of Native Americans and other occupants of lands seized by the U.S. government. American Indians continued to struggle against U.S. government policies in the 20th century.

Ruszkowski — who is a designee because he has not been confirmed by the state legislature — reached out to every tribal leader in the state, according to a spokesman for the New Mexico Public Education Department, to express remorse for the “poorly phrased historical reference and to clarify that portion of his speech.” He also met with several tribal leaders and the vice president of the Navajo Nation, the spokesman said.

Ruszkowski himself said in a statement:

“I reject any doctrine, past or present, that stands in the way of making excellent schools a reality for all of our children, and stand alongside all of New Mexico’s children, families, educators, and tribal leaders who are fighting for schools that are both higher performing academically and more culturally and linguistically responsive. We must continue to partner and collaborate on behalf of our children.”

Criticism started shortly after the remarks appeared in the media. E. Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, wrote an op-ed in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper that said in part:

“The All Pueblo Council of Governors consists of the 19 sovereign Pueblo Nations of New Mexico, with the 20th Pueblo nation, Ysleta del Sur, in Texas. We are the oldest political organization in the country, dating back to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. We are the primary and official advocacy organization representing the Pueblo Nations on all matters locally and at the state and federal levels.
“We are appalled and deeply offended by the recent statements at a charter school conference by Public Education Department Secretary-designate Christopher Ruszkowski regarding Manifest Destiny as the continuing core value of this nation and the state that drives the education agenda. This is utterly disgraceful, lacking any sensitivity, understanding and appreciation of the atrocious impacts of Manifest Destiny upon generations of our people. The principles of Manifest Destiny have inflicted multigenerational trauma. That is the legacy of Manifest Destiny in our history.”

The comments should be evaluated in context, according to Regis Pecos, co-director of the Leadership Institute based at the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, which was established in 1997 to foster discourse on public policy and tribal community issues facing the 22 tribal nations in New Mexico.

“If these are deeply embedded values [of Ruszkowski], then it is unfortunate that he is the secretary of the Public Education Department in a place where you have surviving sovereign nations who were the victims of this very doctrine that he makes reference to as the very foundation of the principles that made America great,” Pecos said. Pecos served as lieutenant governor and governor of the Tribal Council at Cochiti Pueblo, was executive director of the New Mexico Office of Indian Affairs for 16 years and was chief of staff to the New Mexico speaker of the house as well as a trustee of Princeton University.

He said such statements to American Indians are “what the Holocaust is to the Jews” and what “slavery is to our African American brothers and sisters.”

Anpao Duta Flying Earth, head of School at the Native American Community Academy, wrote a response on the website of the Center for Student Leadership in Albuquerque that said in part:

“My grandmother first told me about Manifest Destiny in the context of genocide and brutal colonization of our ancestors. European colonizers used the idea of Manifest Destiny based in a righteous divine purpose to validate the killing, raping, and theft of indigenous land and ideas. She would often emphasize that though Manifest Destiny began hundreds of years ago, it is still alive in peoples’ ideas today. It is the cause for a corrupt notion of property rights that disregards the inherent rights and responsibilities that indigenous people have to the land. Manifest Destiny has led to the paternalistic treatment of tribes by the federal government articulated in policy and de facto treatment of indigenous people that sends a message of ‘we know what’s best for you’ and in fact ‘it’s our divine right to control you and your land base.’
“Because of my knowledge and personal experience with the idea of Manifest Destiny, I was shocked to hear it referenced in a speech by the New Mexico secretary of education as a positive baseline theory in our education systems. Everyone in the education field, especially the New Mexico secretary of education, has the responsibility to learn about the local context and culture of the people, if for nothing else than to better understand the thousands of children and families who are affected by their leadership. What message is proliferated by the validation of Manifest Destiny as quintessentially American?
“I understand that the intentions of these comments are based in the support of high-quality charter schools. However, there is no context that validates the use of this term in relation to progress without disregarding the brutal reality of what happened in this country’s history under the auspice of Manifest Destiny. We need to demand accountability of individuals who carelessly use terms that buttress domination and supremacy of one group over another. Accountability is necessary when considering that the individual who made these remarks is responsible for the leadership of an entire state’s education system.”