Efforts to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for minorities in the U.S. have been fitful, and results have come slowly. For American Indian and Alaska Native students, scores on the standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) for reading and mathematics pretty much held steady—at the lowest end of the spectrum for all ethnic/racial groups—between 2009 and 2013. Chronic absenteeism, schools in poor physical condition, inadequate resources, inexperienced teachers and a high school graduation rate of only 67 percent are persistent, discouraging and oft-reported challenges facing AI/AN students, teachers and communities. Nonetheless, there are reasons to be hopeful about Native education — recent court decisions and policy initiatives mean improvements are likely coming in the not-too-distant future.
Supreme Court Affirms Affirmative Action
On June 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that colleges may use race as one factor in admissions decisions. “The ruling of the court is one step in the journey to heal the wounds caused by the forced assimilation,” said National Indian Education Association President Patricia Whitefoot. ”Education, which was used as a weapon of war, can now be used to propel students forward.”
Affirmative action is one strategy for addressing past discrimination against minorities, and it helps create diverse student bodies in institutions of higher education. California’s Prop 209 banned affirmative action in university and college admissions in 1996. In 1995, 459 American Indian students applied to the UC system and 248 (54 percent) enrolled for their freshman year; in 2013, 709 applied, but only 176 (25 percent) enrolled, according to a university report. In 2012, almost 54 percent of California’s high school graduates were Black, Latino and Native American, but only 27 percent of the freshmen admitted to the UC system belonged to those three groups.
Following the Supreme Court’s decision last spring in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, California and the other eight states that have banned affirmative action in college admissions now have reason to reconsider.
Federal Education Law Give Tribes A Voice
The federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 has replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with legislation that gives tribes an unprecedented role in deciding how American Indian children in public schools are educated.
National Indian Education Association Executive Director Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee, said, “This [law] is a huge change for Native education, the first steps toward self-determination over public education on our lands. It is the first time states and local educational agencies will have to talk to tribes…. When tribes, governments, schools and the community have an active voice in [their schools], that’s the best step you can take to improve education.”
Local control is an overarching principle of the new law. For example, it prohibits the federal government from recommending, let alone mandating, which standards or tests states will use. And states or local educational agencies, not the federal government, will determine which schools need improvement and what—if anything—the schools would be required to do about it. Both of these provisions radically increase local control of school systems and thereby potentially increase the opportunity for tribes to have a say.
Cobell Scholarships Available
Indigenous Education, Inc., had awarded just over $1.9 million in scholarships by the end of the 2015-2016 spring semester, with roughly 80 percent of that amount going to undergraduates.
The Cobell Education Scholarship Fund was established as part of the 2009 $3.4-billion Cobell Settlement, which ended a lawsuit brought by Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, against the federal government alleging that the U.S. had mismanaged trust fund accounts for half a million individual American Indians and Alaska Natives.
The scholarship initiative is funded in part by the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations—also authorized by the Cobell Settlement—wherein the U.S. buys out fractionated interests in land held by individual Indians and holds those lands in trust for the tribes participating in the program.
The Interior Department transfers money from the buy-back program to the scholarship fund as a percent of the land sales completed during that quarter. The amount that may be transferred is capped at $60 million. As of July 2016, nearly $40 million had been transferred to the Scholarship Fund.
Students interested in applying for Cobell Scholarships can find information at CobellScholar.org.
New School Construction
In January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced funding was available to replace the last two schools on the 2004 list of Bureau of Indian Education schools in desperate need of major repairs or replacement. The list of the next 11 schools to be renovated or replaced was announced in April, and funding is available to begin planning and design for some of those schools.
Separately, Congress appropriated funds to replace the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in Minnesota. Nonetheless, there remains a $1-billion backlog in needed construction for BIE schools.
Native Youth Community Projects Program Expanded
The U.S. Department of Education tripled its investment in Native Youth Community Projects in June, adding $17.4 million in grant funding to the $5.3 million awarded last September for programs that promote college and career readiness for students in Indian country.
William Mendoza, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, says, “This represents the largest increase for Indian education, specifically Title VII, since its inception. These are important grants that tribal leaders called for… to engage in partnerships and to be involved in schools across the country.”
The president’s proposed 2017 budget proposal includes $5.3 million for the Native Youth Community Projects program. NYCP is part of President Obama’s Generation Indigenous initiative.
Feds Take Guesswork Out of Picking Good Colleges
The U.S. Department of Education published its revamped College Scorecard with comprehensive information on more than 7,000 schools that offer two-year and four-year degrees. The web-based scorecard, available at no charge, offers information on tuition, graduation and retention rates, fields of study, percentage of students getting financial aid and the annual family contribution for the lowest-income students—to name just a few categories.
However, Cindy Lindquist, president of Cankdeska Cikana Community College, says she is concerned that the information about tribal colleges needs to include some context, such an explanation of why graduation rates for TCUs are relatively low compared with other schools.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Under Review
In 2012–13, the percentage of students served under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was highest for American Indian/Alaska Native students (16 percent), followed by Black students (15 percent), White students (13 percent), students of two or more races (13 percent), Hispanic students (12 percent), Pacific Islander students (11 percent), and Asian students (6 percent).
The U.S. Department of Education in March began working on ways to reduce disproportionate representation based on race/ethnicity in special education and to reduce disparities in discipline based on race.
Sen. McCain Introduces School Choice Legislation
Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, has introduced legislation that would give parents of children attending BIE schools the option of sending their kids to private, charter or online schools using BIE funds. The Native American Education Opportunity Act narrowly won the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs’ approval on September 7, but probably will not be voted on—if it does come up for a vote—before the election.
The program is modeled on a similar program in Arizona that expanded the state’s private school voucher program to tribal communities. Backed by Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay, Navajo, the program allows parents of children living on a reservation and attending a BIE school to apply for scholarships that would pay for education at other schools.
Free Community College Initiative May Be Gaining Ground
This year’s presidential election brought the issue of the high cost of a college education to the forefront. President Barack Obama’s proposed 2017 budget funds “America's College Promise (ACP), which would create a new partnership with states to make two years of community college free for responsible students, letting students earn the first half of a bachelor’s degree or an associate’s degree and acquire skills needed in the workforce at no cost,” the Office of Budget and Management reports.
Democrats seem to have taken seriously Sen. Bernie Sanders’, I-VT, call for free public education during the Democratic primary. Their platform reads “Democrats are unified in their strong belief that every student should be able to go to college debt-free, and working families should not have to pay any tuition to go to public colleges and universities…. We will also make community college free, while ensuring the strength of our Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.”
The Republican platform does not touch on free community college but does say that the federal government should get out of the student loan business and return that function to the private sector.
This story was originally published on October 27, 2016.