The U.S. Supreme Court has interpreted the Constitution, treaties, and federal laws applicable to American Indians and Alaska Natives as having created a fundamental contract between Indian people and the United States known as the “federal trust responsibility.” In exchange for the cession of millions of acres of tribal-nation land and natural resources, the United States promised tribes the right of continued self-government and the right to exist as distinct peoples in perpetuity. The trust responsibility ensures that the federal government provides adequate resources to tribes and Native-serving programs, including education, in order to sufficiently address the needs of Native citizens and strengthen the inherent sovereignty of tribal nations.
When the federal government fails to meet its trust responsibility to tribal nations, there are dire consequences for our most vulnerable citizens. The release in August of a report by the Education Trust, “The State of Education for Native Students,” was unnerving as it underscored the widening achievement gap for our Native children. Although Native students in my home state of Oklahoma are more likely to be proficient or advanced in math and reading than Native students elsewhere in the country, there continues to be a state of emergency in Native education.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, or NCES, only 69 percent of Native students graduate from high school in four years, compared with 78 percent of all students. The statistics in the Education Trust report further substantiate the need for education policy reform, full funding for education programs, and increased collaboration between education stakeholders and Native communities to ensure parental engagement.
Currently, there are 38 tribes and 116,000 Native students in Oklahoma, and a majority of children in these tribes attend public schools. Nationally, 93 percent of Native youths attend regular public schools, with the remaining 7 percent attending other school systems, such as Bureau of Indian Education schools. For the children who do graduate, preparedness levels are unsettling, as only one-fourth of Native high school graduates are college-ready in math, and only one-third are college-ready in reading. As a result of insufficient appropriation of resources from the federal government and the inability of schools to adequately address the needs of Native students, our communities are losing a generation of leaders.
To ensure that Native students are on the path to success, a number of steps must be taken. Reform of early-childhood, elementary and secondary, and postsecondary education must address failed federal policies and create programs that support the ability of Native parents to engage and regain their confidence in the education systems that serve Native students. To that end, federal, local, and tribal programs should prepare parents to support their children in the earliest years of their lives, since early education is critical for developing a strong foundation for success in later years. Well-documented research shows that family engagement increases student achievement and builds a positive attitude and self-esteem.
Unfortunately, as tribes attempt to supplement growing budget cuts in early education and other programs, they are essentially getting their feet taken out from under them by the federal government. Sequestration—the $1.2 trillion in automatic, across-the-board federal budget reductions—is undermining the success of early-education programs, such as Head Start and Early Head Start. The National Head Start Association reports that sequestration reduced Head Start programs by more than $400 million nationally in 2013, with Indian Head Start programs on track to lose approximately $12 million. Nationwide, Head Start cuts equate to nearly 57,000 fewer children served and more than 18,000 staff members suffering pay cuts or the loss of their jobs.
“Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” Those words in a speech by Robert Henry Pratt in 1892 are a stark reminder of how the United States government once viewed American Indians. In 1879, Pratt opened the first off-reservation government boarding school where Native American children where sent, often forcibly, to be “civilized.”
Low rates of high school graduation, among other grim educational outcomes, weigh on Indian Country today. In spite of their deep concerns, many Native leaders see a direction for how to improve student achievement and academic prosperity, including through the preservation of tribal cultures and languages.
Education Week Commentary editors partnered with the National Indian Education Association to invite Native leaders to discuss such issues. Artist Brent Greenwood (Chickasaw/Ponca) contributed original illustrations.
Read the other Commentaries and browse a related reporting project on Native American education: Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunities
School districts across the country have also had to make tough decisions, including shortening school days and reducing the length of the school week to postpone immediate layoffs. However, such measures could be exhausted in subsequent school years as reductions are expected to increase and one-time budget remedies or contingency funds are drained. This situation is simply unacceptable. Schools that serve Native students cannot expect to reverse the consistently disappointing trends, including in National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, scores, without a means to provide Native children with a basic education foundation.
The achievement gap will continue to widen as constrained budgets put the squeeze on early-education programs and schools that are reliant on federal funds. The students who most need fully funded academic programs to ensure equity in educational excellence will be left underserved, while students in school districts with wealthy tax bases continue to be educated by the best programs, small class sizes, and advanced courses that prepare them for college and careers.
Early education is the best opportunity to bridge the widening gap. Unfortunately, the political posturing of congressional leaders over fiscal issues, as well as the inability of the administration to request appropriate funding levels, all but guarantee that these troubling statistics will continue to affect America’s most vulnerable populations.
While parental engagement is essential to supporting a child’s early education, involvement can only accomplish so much if programmatic funding is reduced to the point that children are learning in overcrowded classrooms, schools are closing, and teachers are losing their jobs. While the goal has not been stated as such, sequestration is having the same effect as the termination era that was implemented by the federal government to undermine the sovereignty of Indian tribes. Devastating budget cuts are undermining tribal governments and forcing Native peoples to move from their homelands to simply provide for their families.
Native people across the United States are deepening on our future generations to build a country that supports and cherishes its Native cultures. As a tribal leader, I call on all tribes and Native peoples to raise our voices as one. We must urge the federal government to uphold its trust responsibility to tribes. We must work together to compel Congress and the Obama administration to make sure our students have access to early-education programs that are fully funded, that prepare them to succeed in school, and that pave the way for them to become leaders who will strengthen our cultures and communities so we can thrive for generations to come.
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as Upending an Education Crisis in Indian Country