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Exploiting Native Kids: School Choice

The American Federation for Children, a school-choice advocacy group, recently released a 10-minute “mini-documentary” that exploits Native kids.
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The American Federation for Children, a school-choice advocacy group, recently released a 10-minute “mini-documentary” that exploits American Indian kids to promote their agenda.

The video, America’s Underdogs: Students in Crisis begins with a statement by a 14-year-old White Mountain Apache student: “Kids are killing themselves because they have no opportunities,” he says. And later: “Parents, they like to go off and drink. They don’t show up. They’re just out there drinking. They leave us to the grandparents. It’s kind of bad but it’s normal everywhere.”

The video is intended to promote replacing public schools with school vouchers. It focuses specifically on legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate earlier this year by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, the Native American Education Opportunity Act, which would give parents of students living on American Indian reservations the option of using federally-funded education savings accounts to send their kids to private, charter or online schools, but the movement is national.

Both Lawrence S. Roberts, Acting Assistant Secretary – Indian Affairs, and National Indian Education Association President Patricia Whitefoot spoke strongly against McCain’s bill when the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the legislation April 6. According to those experts, the legislation does not serve the educational interests of American Indian students.

The video holds up STAR School as a model educational environment, showing American Indian kids engaged in compelling, hands-on learning. STAR School, in Leupp, Arizona, is a charter school that is part of the Flagstaff Unified School District. Ninety-eight percent of the 130 students are Navajo, but it is not an American Indian-run school. Nonetheless, it has won many accolades for its efforts to integrate Navajo culture into its curriculum and ethos.

Little Singer Community School, also on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, is presented as the contrast. It is a BIE school in deplorable condition. But the video fails to mention that in January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced that $45 million had been appropriated to replace Little Singer and one other school, the final two projects on the 2004 school replacement list.

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Many of the statements made in the video are indisputably true: As McCain said, “Indian schools are arguably the absolute worst of any part of our nation.” Arizona State Sen. Carlyle Begay, who worked with McCain on the federal legislation, noted that American Indians have the highest high school dropout rate and the lowest graduation rate of any ethnic group. American Indian and Alaska Native students routinely score poorly on standardized tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

When the video was released August 1, the AFC promoted it with this statement: “This was one of the most shocking pieces I’ve ever worked on because we are dealing with almost an entire population of America’s children living in despair with no goals or dreams to look forward to,” said Kim Martinez, producer of America’s Underdogs. “This documentary is meant to jar our consciousness. We have an obligation as a nation to no longer sweep this issue under the rug, children’s lives are literally at stake.”

Martinez tells ICTMN that the documentary was filmed prior to the announcement that Little Singer Community School would be replaced and that the school had asked AFC to film there in order to bring attention to conditions there.

She also says that the 14-year-old was sharing his perspective and experience and that of other young people, not necessarily speaking about his own tribe. He was interviewed at an education conference held by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and the tribe gave permission to use the youngster’s comments in the documentary, she maintains.

Begay, who appears in the documentary, tells ICTMN he wants to create a dialog about education in Indian country. “Social and economic conditions will not change unless we improve educational outcomes” for Native American students, he says, and school choice may be one of the ways to do that. He notes that a similar program in Arizona brought applications for vouchers from 238 American Indian families in a mere four weeks.

Begay says the 14-year-old seen in the documentary has already positioned himself as a youth leader and tells his story of extreme challenges in the hope that it will inspire other kids not to give up. “We wanted to put a face and a name to the crisis,” says Begay, noting that the boy’s legal guardians were aware of the production. He said he understood ICTMN’s concerns and would talk to AFC about possibly using people over 18 to bring the case for school vouchers to the public in the future.

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