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Obama Administration Gives Historic Control of Education System to Navajo Nation

Navajo Takeover: Obama Administration gives historic control of Education System to Navajo Nation

In what Navajo Nation tribal leaders lauded as an historic agreement with the Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of the Interior, the Obama Administration has approved the first phase of the Navajo Nation’s request to implement an alternative system of accountability for schools.

In addition to giving control to the Navajo Nation as to how they teach their Navajo youth, the Obama Administration also is issuing two new rounds of federal grants totaling nearly $25 million to support native youth and educators.

According to a joint release by the BIE and DOI, the new educational system will unite 66 Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)-funded schools in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah and will allow the tribe to take greater control of the education of its students under a single system of standards, assessments, and accountability.

This approval continues the Administration’s work to support Indian tribal self-government and sovereignty, honor tribal treaty and other rights, and strive to meet the responsibilities that arise from the unique relationship between the federal and tribal governments.

As part of the process to honor the agreement, Navajo Nation leaders and tribal members met with Obama Administration officials to include U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs, Karen Diver.

Navajo Nation leaders and tribal members met with Obama Administration officials to sign an historic education agreement with the Bureau of Indian Education and the Department of the Interior - Photo: Vincent Schilling

The Navajo Nation leadership present at the historic signing were President Russell Begaye, Vice President Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation Board of Education President Dr. Pauline M. Begay and Department of Diné Education Superintendent Dr. Tommy Lewis Jr.

Navajo Nation President Begaye expressed a heartfelt thank you to the Obama Administration officials and described how far he had come as a young student who had his open hands slapped with rulers, had soap poured into his mouth and made to stand with his nose to the blackboard for having spoken his Navajo language as a child.

“We want a world class education system for our children and future generations. Our responsibility as a sovereign Nation is to challenge our young minds to reach their highest potential, as they are our future leaders. This plan is not a quick fix. It will take everyone from our parents, teachers, administrators and legislators working together to achieve our goal of a world class education for our Navajo youth,” said President Begaye.

"All American-Indian and Alaska-Native students should have the support, opportunities, and education that honor their identity and their unique experiences, while providing them with the knowledge and skills to attain their greatest aspirations," said U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. "For the Navajo, this alternative accountability system will give the tribe even more autonomy to run its schools while also helping to ensure that students are thriving."

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Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., and Vice President Jonathan Nez. - Photo: Vincent Schilling

The approval honored at the signing in Washington applies retroactively to the 2015-16 school year, as well as the current school year.

The agreement also permits the Navajo to:

  • Adopt and implement the same set of college-and-career-ready content standards in reading/language, arts, and mathematics in all its schools, rather than implementing the standards and assessments of each individual state where schools are located;
  • Select and administer an assessment that will be comparable across Navajo schools in New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona;
  • Set and use its own high school graduation rate targets and attendance for elementary and middle schools in its accountability system.

"Today marks an important milestone for the Navajo Nation and this Administration's efforts to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for Native youth," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell - seated with President Russell Begaye and Special Assistant to the President for Native American Affairs, Karen Diver – said, "Today marks an important milestone for the Navajo Nation." - Photo: Vincent Schilling

"The alternative accountability system launched today provides a plan to replace a cumbersome multi-state system and promote unified and rigorous standards, curriculum, and student assessments that reflect the academic and cultural values of the Navajo community. 

Recognizing the Navajo Nation's right to govern tribally-controlled schools is another step in the President's Generation Indigenous initiative to reform the Bureau of Indian Education system, raise student achievement, and advance tribal self-determination and support tribal sovereignty."

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell warmly congratulates members of the Navajo Nation - Photo: Vincent Schilling

For more information visit the U.S. Department of Education announcement here.

Follow ICTMN's Vincent Schilling on Twitter - @VinceSchilling