A Different School of Thought

The state's unabashed enthusiasm for charter schools stops at the borders of Indian reservations

The rapid proliferation of Arizona's charter schools hasn't won over many traditional public-school advocates, liberal politicians or teachers' unions. But the conservative camp's pet project has won converts in an unlikely arena.

The state's Indian reservations.
Arizona's charter-school law has allowed tribes to rake in extra cash for what they see as long-needed improvements to reservation schools. Until last year, tribal schools that became state charter schools could collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in state charter funds. That was on top of hundreds of thousands of dollars they were already getting in basic aid from the federal government.

The tribal charter schools spent their state windfalls on new buses, modular classrooms, office equipment, musical instruments, even a domed school in the northern Arizona desert.

"We knew the charter-school movement wasn't designed with us in mind. That was clear," says Mark Sorensen, who runs the Little Singer Community School on the Navajo reservation. "However, we really felt that this fit us like a glove.

"We think what we're doing is a model not only for Native American communities but any rural community that doesn't have a dime to rub against another dime."

But the influx of cash to reservation schools rubbed policymakers the wrong way. They accused the tribes of "double dipping."

Last year, the Legislature cut the tribes off. It passed a law that withholds charter-school funds only from tribal schools, an action the tribes say is discriminatory and unconstitutional.

Although Congress recognized the disparity and told Arizona it couldn't deduct the tribes' money, Arizona has ignored the federal law. Last month, several tribes sued to force Arizona to comply with federal law.

But Governor Jane Hull is taking a hard line that is more than just an exercise in a state's right to do what it wants with its own money: Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid to Arizona's public schools are at stake.

Hull's own legal advisers say withholding money from the tribes may violate civil rights law, putting nearly $300 million in education funds in jeopardy.

Hull, who once taught at an Indian reservation school, says withholding state money from tribal charter schools is a matter of fiscal fairness; the tribes counter that it's a matter of discrimination. Both views are oversimplifications of a complex debate immersed in education reform, free-market and treaty ideologies, and states'-rights bravado.

Hull recently asked the state's school administration to ignore several million dollars in federal education funds it usually applies for. She believes the tactic might allow Arizona to sidestep its obligation to give money to tribal charter schools.

"I know it is difficult to give up potential financial resources," Hull wrote in an April letter to the state board of education. "However, in this case the net result is a benefit to the children and taxpayers of the state."

Tribal leaders say they wonder which children the governor is thinking of.

"See the eagle?" Diana Shebala asks as the school van turns a corner.
Sure enough, sitting on the roof of a low stone hovel, an immense, powerful-looking bird stares indifferently as the van creeps by.

"He's a very important person in the village right now," she says. And as the van negotiates the tight maze of dirt roads in Hotevilla, she explains why the eagle is tethered to a roof in the tiny Hopi village.

In a few days, she says, the men of the village will ritually smother the eagle--while being careful not to spill a drop of its blood--so that the bird's feathers can be used in religious ceremonies.

"I can't tell you any more than that. The men keep most of it secret," she says.

The eagle fades from view, and more stone houses appear in a crazy patchwork. None of the dwellings near Hotevilla's old central plaza has running water, but some sport solar panels and satellite TV dishes.

Away from the plaza, cinder-block houses dot the Hopi reservation mesa. Soon another village center comes into view, this one very different from the traditional, religious center of town. Drab, institutional buildings are clustered around a water tower. Shebala points out the community shower, the flour mill, the corner store.

All of it seems held gravitationally in the grip of the largest building in town, the local elementary school.

Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School also serves the small village of Bacavi, which lies just across the ribbon of highway that snakes over the Hopi mesas. Both towns were founded by traditionalist Hopis, who opposed sending their children to white men's schools.

A half-century later, in 1958, the Bureau of Indian Affairs built the large school in Hotevilla. Shebala attended in the early 1970s.

Today, she's president of the school's board. Since 1978, the tribe has operated the school itself, and has added several modular classrooms to go with the school's main building and "teacherages," which the BIA had left behind.

Simple block structures sitting in a row, the teacherages house instructors, who usually come from outside the reservation. One of the modest dwellings is the home of the school's administrator, Adelbert Goldtooth, a Navajo from Tuba City.

Housing teachers, Goldtooth says as he walks the grounds of the school with Shebala, is one of the challenges non-reservation schools rarely have to think about.

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