Teaching Profession

Teacher-Training Grants For American Indians Questioned

By Sean Cavanagh — March 17, 2004 3 min read
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A conservative legal foundation is arguing that federally financed teacher-training programs aimed at recruiting more Native Americans into the profession are violating the U.S. Constitution by considering race as a factor in admissions.

The Mountain States Legal Foundation, in letters to four Western universities that house the programs, contends that the initiatives violate the 14th Amendment’s equal-protection clause.

“Educators of the future should not be told that they are the wrong race to compete for a scholarship or to teach their fellow citizens,” William Perry Pendley, the foundation’s president and chief legal officer, said in a Feb. 11 statement.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year gave a qualified endorsement of the use of race as a factor in college admissions in two cases from the University of Michigan. Mr. Pendley argues that the four Western institutions use race as prerequisites for eligibility. The Lakewood, Colo.-based legal organization is challenging the Indian teacher-training programs at four schools: Humboldt State University in Arcata, Calif.; Montana State University’s Billings campus; the University of Oregon in Eugene, Ore.; and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Mr. Pendley says in the press statement that he has asked that the schools end their “race-based” programs. He contends that the programs also violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race.

Mr. Pendley did not return several calls for comment. His organization, which describes itself as a strong supporter of private-property rights, limited government, and free enterprise, often sues on behalf of like-minded clients.

University representatives disputed the foundation’s arguments. And the head of the office that oversees the teacher-training program at the U.S. Department of Education described the effort as vital to helping attract good teachers to schools with American Indian populations.

“We’ve got to have role models who are going back into the schools where the Indian students are,” said Victoria L. Vasques, the director of the department’s office of Indian education

The teacher-training initiative at the heart of the dispute is known as the American Indian Teacher Corps. A second, smaller program offers training for school administrators. The goal is to encourage Indian teachers to become qualified for jobs as teachers and administrators in heavily Native American communities, where their knowledge of the culture can improve the overall quality of education, Ms. Vasques said.

Race and Tribal Rights

The teacher corps awards are distributed as three-year grants to colleges, Indian tribes, states, and districts. Ms. Vasques estimates that since the program was created in 2000, the department has distributed about $33 million to various recipients, which have produced 850 teachers and 200 school administrators.

Faculty members and legal advisers from the four universities said that the courts had consistently protected Indian programs from such charges of bias, because of the separate, government-to-government relationship that exists between Indian tribes and the federal government.

Rennard Strickland, a law professor at the University of Oregon, pointed to a 1974 Supreme Court case, Morton v. Mancari, as providing the government with significant leeway in granting Indians preference in hiring for certain positions. That preference, the high court held, was based not on Indians’ race, but on their belonging to federally recognized tribal governments.

“It strikes me as strange, given congressional action and case law, that the [Mountain States foundation] would suggest this,” said Mr. Strickland, who edited The Handbook of Federal Indian Law.

Reno Charette, the director of Montana State University’s Big Horn Teacher Project, said her program has received $792,000 over three years from the federal professional-development programs.

The average age of her students is 33. Many are taking classes while taking care of an older family member, Ms. Charette said. And they are in demand. Superintendents from across Montana keep track of her students, hoping eventually to hire them for their predominantly Indian districts.

“Our program attracts people who are place-bound, people who are in their communities because of culture, language, land ownership, and care of elders,” said Ms. Charette, a native of the Crow tribe who grew up on a Cheyenne Indian reservation. “This allows them to make an income where there are few major employers.”

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