It’s more than a little upsetting that in more than three hours of testimony before Congress on her nomination to be the new U.S. secretary of education, neither Betsy DeVos nor the members of Congress grilling her said anything—not a single word—about a cohort of more than a half-million American students who will fall under the Department of Education’s remit.
That group? Native American students.
The challenges facing Native students in America today are known, although hardly ever discussed outside of Native communities. According to national statistics, our students are more likely to be labeled as having special needs and experience higher rates of suspension and expulsion than white students. Just 67 percent of Native students graduate from high school—a figure well below the national average.
This is in part due to a tribal education system that has been imposed on us by the federal government for 150 years. But contrary to what many think, education in Indian Country is not in need of a solution imposed by others who know little about our communities. Solutions already lie within.
Created in the 19th century, the federal system responsible for educating American Indian students and funding Indian schools is a direct result of treaties entered into by our sovereign tribal nations and the federal government. At its inception, this education system had a stated policy of forcing the assimilation of Indian people by eradicating tribal culture. Students were intentionally taken away from their families and placed in boarding schools, where many endured physical and mental abuse.
Slowly, the federal government moved away from these devastating policies, but the system that remains today for Native students is underfunded and inadequately staffed. The buildings our students study in are plagued with infrastructure problems, yet federal money, which should be guaranteed in accordance with long-standing treaties, has not been made available to fix them.
The story of the Havasupai Elementary School in Arizona, at the heart of a recently filed lawsuit, is an example of how our federal education system has failed Native students. Nine students from the school are suing the Bureau of Indian Education for “knowingly failing to provide basic general education.” These are problems seen not just in this school, but in many other BIE schools across Indian Country. The failure to fully fund school construction, renovations, and repairs, coupled with the current federal hiring freeze (which could prevent teacher vacancies from being filled), does not set our students up for success.
The system that remains today for Native students is underfunded and inadequately staffed."
Still, many outside of Indian Country have offered several “answers” to repair the failing, broken system our children and their families endure. There have been calls to privatize schools through vouchers, to move responsibility from the federal government to state control, or to close some BIE schools entirely. Every one of these so-called solutions, while well-meaning, has a common thread: Tribes and Native people were not involved in the development of any of them. This means, unfortunately for us all, they are unlikely to work.
Simply put, lasting solutions must be developed in partnership with Native communities, and there are examples across Indian Country that show how tribal innovation and leadership can lead to programs and services that meet communitywide needs. Through local control and direct community engagement, tribes have redesigned their courts, health-care systems, and workforce.
For example, in Alaska, innovative approaches to dental health have made significant headway in improving youths’ oral health at a fraction of the standard cost. In Montana, the Confederated Tribes of Salish and Kootenai have transformed workforce-development programs and cut their unemployment rate by 20 percentage points. In Washington state, the Tulalip Tribe has developed a world-class, culturally sensitive tribal court system that has reduced recidivism rates among tribal offenders. Programs like these show that a win-win situation is possible when federal funds are spent in accordance with what the community wants and needs. And, today, we have a new opportunity to ensure these same successes in education.
The education system promised by the trust responsibility to our tribes must be honored, not dismantled with vouchers or a hand-off of control to a state or local government body. The solutions lie within our communities. Everyone—tribes, the federal government, and other partners—must work together to ensure that the schools where our children are educated have the flexibility to create innovative approaches to meet the unique educational and cultural needs of Indian students. This can only be done through a tribal-led system.
The work needed to transform the lasting hallmarks of a failed federal system cannot be done overnight or in isolation. Before more money is thrown into another well-meaning but poorly crafted solution, our existing schools should be given every opportunity to thrive, regardless of who leads the Department of Education. Native students absolutely need new culturally based approaches to providing the world-class education they deserve.
To get there, we need committed partners who understand that traditional knowledge and culture-based education are key to producing engaged, successful learners. And we need partners who understand that tribes and Native communities must not only have a voice, they must lead the way.
A version of this article appeared in the February 08, 2017 edition of Education Week as Let’s Not Forget Our Native Students