Opinion: Preserve funding for Native American charter schools

Fiona Harrigan

COVID-19 has rattled Michigan’s economy, and the state’s education budget will take an estimated $1.2 billion hit this year. And as legislators look to trim expenses, history would suggest that charter school funding could be first on the chopping block. Michigan’s 150,000 charter school students will undoubtedly suffer from a cut to funding. But the cost could be especially detrimental for the state’s Native American students. 

For 41 years, Native American students from Michigan were sent to the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial School to learn how to assimilate into white culture. Around 300 students passed through Mount Pleasant every year to be indoctrinated, forced to surrender their traditions in the name of integration. The school shut its doors in 1934. 

Today, school remains a painful proposition for the nation’s half a million Native students. Native high school students are suspended more than twice as often as white students, drop out at rates roughly twice the national average, and have a graduation rate of 72%, the lowest of any racial demographic. The picture is certainly bleak in Michigan, where Native students have a graduation rate of 69.94% (compared to 84.65% for white students). 

Though charter schools are scarce, their successes will challenge the institutions that have failed generations of Native Americans, Harrigan writes.

Unfortunately, these issues are exacerbated by rigid curriculum, which often pushes cultural erasure and harmful stereotypes. Nebraska’s textbooks, for instance, have described Native Americans as lazy and drunk, and no state’s educational standards include mention of current Native issues. Native students struggle to see themselves in the material they learn, so they tend to disengage

Since most Native students attend traditional public schools––92% as of 2014––educational alternatives are more important than ever. One in particular shows great promise: charter schools, where teachers have ample leeway in customizing lessons to specific classroom needs. It’s the perfect formula for Native education, which benefits from non-mainstream instruction. Thankfully, Native-focused charter schools already exist. And though it’s still unclear how these schools affect academic outcomes, they’re an encouraging alternative to the inhospitable status quo. 

Michigan currently has three Native-focused charter schools, with one –– the Joseph K. Lumsden Bahweting Anishnabe School –– winning a number of awards. For many of Michigan’s Native students, these schools open doors that were previously closed. As Dan Quisenberry, President of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies, expressed, “Charter schools are giving Native American students hope for a brighter future that wouldn’t exist otherwise.” 

For another success story, look at how Sovereign Community School in Oklahoma City is providing a safe environment for kids to explore their indigenous backgrounds. At Sovereign, students see their heritage everywhere, learning geometry through beadwork, literature through indigenous authors, and environmental science through traditional ecological knowledge. 

Other charter schools have become leaders in indigenous language revitalization efforts. The Waadookodaading Ojibwe Language Immersion School of Hayward, Wisconsin offers students sophisticated linguistic education through joint Ojibwe and English instruction––a combination that teachers credit for their students’ 100% proficiency rate in state reading and writing measures. 

Sadly, charter schools remain inaccessible to most Native students. As of 2018, 64 charter schools served students on reservations, on Bureau of Indian Affairs lands, or in high-concentration Native populations (i.e., over 25% of students were Native). That’s less than 1% of charter schools across the U.S., which total over 7,000 as of 2018. There are still battles to be fought. 

To many Native students, traditional schools are yet another roadblock to social and economic advancement. They’re places where indigenous backgrounds are disregarded and students’ mental health suffers. And though charter schools are scarce, their successes will challenge the institutions that have failed generations of Native Americans. For their histories and their futures, Native students deserve that alternative.

Fiona Harrigan is a contributor for Young Voices and a political writer based in Tucson, Arizona.