A Different School of Thought

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

* Charter schools are free, however, to look for outside sources of cash. If a core notion of charter schools was that they inject public instruction with free-market competition, then a sign of their success would be their ability to attract outside funds. Espiritu Community Development, a charter school that serves mostly Latino students in South Phoenix, received a $1 million grant from the NFL. Charter-school advocates hailed it as an example of educational entrepreneurship at work: The better the school, the better its chances of attracting larger grants, they argued. They were less likely to acknowledge that excellent schools attracting large amounts of cash seemed to contradict the movement's first tenet, that charter schools operate on lean budgets.

* Charter schools can use their state funds any way they want. The money can be spent on operations, capital outlay, investments, whatever it takes to keep things running.

By adhering to these principles, the schools serve a conservative agenda seeking to prove that the state's traditional public schools are bloated, money-wasting bureaucracies too restricted by teachers' unions and government regulation to innovate and improve the education of Arizona's students.

On the reservations, however, Arizona's tribes had a very different experiment in mind. The tribes wanted to show that with healthy budgets and the ability to throw cash at problems like long-needed classrooms and programs, they could produce quality public schools.

It's the opposite message from the one free-market, charter-school proponents had in mind.

Conservatives saw the charter-school phenomenon as a challenge to urban public schools; Arizona's tribes saw it as a pragmatic way to deliver quality education in remote areas.

Tribal leaders say they were mystified by legislators who seemed insensitive to decades of need on the reservations for money to improve substandard schools. They were shocked, they said, to hear legislators talk of Indians not paying state taxes (which wasn't true, they insisted) and of Indians unfairly taking taxpayer money in a "double dip." They wondered what they had done so wrong.

It was a classic case of discrimination, they say, but some have come to realize that the legislators' attitude may also have had something to do with the tribes crashing a party the state was throwing in honor of cherished right-wing beliefs.

"We were here for our kids. We're not here to care about who's competing with whom. All of the other stuff is ridiculous. If you're focused on your kids, you don't care about the rest," says Jo Lewis, principal of the Blackwater Community School on the Gila River Indian Community.

What the Little Singer Community School did with its charter-school money becomes obvious as you drive down a dirt road in a flat, seemingly uninhabited section of the Navajo Nation.

Like an alien saucer crashed in the desert, a giant sand-colored dome rises from the earth. As you approach, a pattern of colors can be seen on it, and it begins to resemble a giant piece of Indian pottery.

Charter-school funds paid for the vast concrete dome that architects erected on the Navajo reservation. They poured the concrete over a giant inflatable plastic ball. Inside there's a gymnasium, a junior high school, and a dreamer by the name of Mark Sorensen.

Sorensen was a graduate student from the University of Chicago working on a doctorate in education when he made a research trip to the Navajo Nation 20 years ago. He never left. Today, he runs the Little Singer school, which began in 1978 as a private school named after a local medicine man.

Sorensen and Thomas Walker Jr., a Navajo parent who's president of Little Singer's board, say the dome is part of their dream to make the school a focal point for the entire local community, about 1,500 people. Sorensen and Walker talk about bringing in Navajo parents to work in the dome and become part of their children's education.

"We're focusing on full service," Sorensen says. "The experience of Navajo adults in school has been so negative, we had to get them excited about school if they were going to help us encourage their kids. So we've been educating them about school."

Sorensen is also director of the Arizona Grant School Association, which has tried to unite tribal schools in their fight to get state charter funds back.

The tribes took their case to Washington, D.C., specifically to U.S. Representative Ed Pastor, Arizona's lone Democratic congressman. Pastor says he was convinced that the tribes had been unfairly singled out by the 1997 state law, sometimes called the "deduct law."

In the final hours of the 1997 congressional session, Pastor managed to insert a paragraph in a federal appropriations bill aimed at forcing Arizona to restore the charter funds to the tribes.

According to Pastor's amendment, if a state receives federal "stimulus" grants for charter schools (about $3 million to Arizona last year), it can't deduct federal ISEP funds from tribal charter schools.

The state Attorney General's Office, in an informal opinion issued April 24, concluded that the state's deduct law conflicts with federal law. "The consequences of this conflict include that Arizona could lose several million dollars of federal education funds," the AG's Office said.

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