A Different School of Thought

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

More ominously, the opinion states, "We also note that Arizona has been put on notice by the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, that [the deduct law] may violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 . . . because of its disparate impact on Native Americans, which could result in Arizona losing additional federal funds."

In the 1996-97 school year, $288 million in federal funds went to the state's public school districts. All of it could be jeopardized if the Office of Civil Rights finds that the civil rights of Native Americans have been violated by Arizona.

A recent tribal lawsuit takes up that point. Thomas Walker Jr., the Little Singer school board member and parent, is one of several plaintiffs who have sued the state claiming that his children's civil rights have been violated by the deduct law.

The same day that the Attorney General's Office delivered its opinion, Governor Hull sent a letter to Doug Pike and Kenneth Bennett, president of the state board of education, asking them not to seek federal stimulus funds in the coming school year.

Her intention was clear: If Arizona didn't get the $3 million in federal funds in the first place, the Pastor amendment would have no teeth. And since at least $10 million was being saved by not giving tribal charter schools state money, Arizona would come out ahead.

Ivan Makil, president of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, says Hull's maneuver won't work. "There's a really basic question here. The state is looking for all kinds of ways to defend its position, but the point is they're not in compliance with federal law."

Helen Grimwood, an attorney who represents schools on the Salt River, Gila River and Hopi reservations, says a separate lawsuit filed by those tribes contends that the state's refusal to fund tribal charter schools is a violation of congressional intent and violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution. A hearing in that case has been set for August 12.

Some tribal educators say they're surprised at Hull's tough stance. Soon after she took office, Hull visited Chinle, where she had taught at a public reservation school from 1962 to 1964. Hull vowed to Navajo leaders that her administration would be more receptive to Native American concerns than her predecessor.

But Hull's actions evoke the Symington era, when defiance against federal law in the name of "states' rights" landed Arizona in protracted court fights.

"This was never a states'-rights issue," says Ted Ferris, Hull's deputy chief of staff. "It's simply a question of whether we should be providing state money when there are federal monies flowing in."

Charter-school board president Doug Pike, however, clearly sees Hull's action as a move to champion states' rights, something he applauds. "It is unfortunate that 10 charter schools will impact potential funding for the other 200+ schools," Pike wrote back to Hull. "In closing, we are pleased to support Arizona's efforts to not only maintain our state's rights but to set an example in controlling spending."

State school board president Kenneth Bennett also sees it as a states'-rights fight. He says he was happy not to request the $3 million in federal money. "We've always been suspicious of federal money and the strings attached," Bennett says. "This is an excellent example. They give you a few dollars with no strings attached, and for whatever reason, the strings start to show up. It's a dangerous game to play."

Jo Lewis, the Blackwater Community School principal, just wishes legislators and state officials could think more about the children who need to be educated and less about states' rights, conservative agendas or Arizona's place in the education reform movement.

"What we want is equitable funding," she says. "Equitable choice, and the best opportunity to do what we can. And they can have their battle."

Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: tortega@newtimes.com

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