A Different School of Thought

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

Sagging, whitewashed clay walls in the school's library are another problem rarely seen in Phoenix or Tucson. A large rock and mortar building, the library seems in an advanced stage of decrepitude. Ominous cracks in ceiling tiles and the collapsing clay insulation will have to be attended to soon, Goldtooth says.

Inside the main building is the kind of elementary school one might expect to find in any Arizona town. Blackboards, small chairs and low tables, papier-máche projects left to dry, textbooks on shelves. While the Hopi hold tightly to traditional religious beliefs and practices, the community's school is preparing students for success in the white world. While the rest of the village may not have electricity, the school has a new networking system that links computers in nearly every building and classroom.

A big new photocopying machine has replaced an aging mimeograph. Two new modular classrooms sit outside the main building. And, parked nearby, there's a yellow school bus so new even the tires gleam.

All were paid for with state charter-school funds.
Arizona's first charter schools opened in 1995, vowing to educate children better than traditional public schools, at a lower cost and with less red tape. Supporters hailed what they saw as a revolution in public instruction.

On reservations, a gradual revolution in education had been going on for decades. In the 1950s, Anglo teachers scolded students for speaking Hopi or Navajo or O'odham. Native American kids were packed off to BIA boarding schools where the last shred of Indianness was torn out of young men and women forced into schools far from their home.

Eventually, tribes gained control of those antiseptic BIA schools and turned them into havens for native language and culture. Tribal control ended decades of federal paternalism.

Most reservation parents chose to send their children to state-run public schools. But the former BIA schools--called "grant schools"--offered Indian parents an alternative. Poorly funded and housed in substandard facilities, the grant schools nevertheless gave parents the opportunity to send their children to a school under tribal control.

In 1994, when state charter schools were put in place, tribal school administrators realized that their schools already were very similar to the new charters. By 1996, 10 tribal schools had received state charters.

The Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School was one of them. It received $422,000 in charter-school funds in 1996, the year it secured its charter. But the school already took in about the same amount in federal operating funds, so Goldtooth and Shebala spent the state money on improvements that they say they had little chance of achieving any other way.

For the 1996-97 school year, the Hotevilla-Bacavi Community School enjoyed the kind of budget that other rural public schools take for granted. With 131 students, Hotevilla-Bacavi received $890,000 in state and federal basic aid, or about $6,800 per pupil. Other rural school districts in Arizona receive $5,000 to $7,000 for basic maintenance and operations (called M&O money by school administrators). Larger urban districts, with more buying power and bonding ability, get less financial help, about $4,000 per student.

Now, since the Legislature cut the flow of state charter money to the tribes, Hotevilla-Bacavi gets just $3,600 per student, a nearly 50 percent drop in funds.

"Rather than progressing towards programs we hoped to provide, now we're in a holding pattern," says Goldtooth.

Parents want the school to start a music program, and in one classroom the floor is piled high with used musical instruments. Goldtooth says he had to stop the music program before it really got started because he no longer has the charter-school funds to pay for it.

Goldtooth and Shebala say other projects and programs will have to wait, too, including finding a safer space for the school's library, better playground equipment and after-school programs for adults and children.

Until then, tribal charter-school administrators will continue to hear the words that have come to plague campuses from Sacaton to Window Rock--"double dipping."

"You're not supposed to try and apply money to the same thing from two different sources. If taxpayers are paying for it once, you don't want them to have to pay twice," says Doug Pike, president of the state's charter-school board.

Soon after tribal schools became charter schools, Pike says, financial analysts at the state Department of Education noticed that the tribes were receiving basic funding from both the state and federal governments.

Legislators called it a "double dip" and a defect in the law.
Representative Laura Knaperek, a Tempe Republican who helped push through the bill to end the tribal schools' state funding, says that the tribes, particularly those with casinos, seemed to be taking advantage of a lucrative loophole. "Tribal sovereignty is a very confusing and muddled issue," she says, complaining that tribes often demand that state government leave them alone, but then demand state assistance when it suits them.

"Many folks feel that the tribes have taken advantage of a lot of issues," says Knaperek.

Tribal leaders say they have every right to collect both state and federal funds.

"I don't think it's fair to say that this federal money our schools get is extra basic funding," says Ivan Makil, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community. "It isn't extra. It's money that's part of an agreement with Indians in whatever area who have given up their land. It's part of that long-term agreement. And almost all of these reservations were created before the state became a state. Yet we still are citizens of the state, and we pay taxes."

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