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.

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."

Lisa Graham Keegan, the state's superintendent of public instruction, insists the state's decision to cut off state money to the tribal schools was based purely on fairness. Still, she acknowledges that the issue is politically charged because it involves Indian children. "It's difficult to discuss this without sounding like you're for or against Indian students," she says.

Tribal school officials say non-charter public schools on the reservation--as well as on military bases--receive M&O money from the federal government. For them, it's called "impact money" and it's intended to make up for the schools' inability to raise local property taxes on the government-owned land.

Sorensen, the director of the Little Singer tribal charter school on the Navajo reservation, says his school competes with public reservation schools that receive both state M&O dollars and federal impact money. Yet the Legislature hasn't moved to take away those state funds.

"If we're going to provide competition, give us a level playing field with public schools which receive impact aid," he says.

Sorensen and others point out that the federal money the tribal charter schools receive--called ISEP funds--is at about the same level as impact money. Why should the state object to tribal charter schools receiving state and ISEP funds when Arizona doesn't object to reservation public schools receiving state and impact money?

Lisa Graham Keegan, however, says the problem is that federal money going to the tribal charter schools, the ISEP funds, is calculated on a per-pupil basis and is considered to be tuition funds. The state charter-schools money also is considered to be tuition funds, she says, regardless of how tribes actually spend the money. Charter schools off the reservation get only one source of tuition money from taxpayers, and are at a disadvantage to tribal schools that get double-funded, she says.

For state officials, the controversy is a simple one. Cutting off the tribal schools is a way to "level the playing field" between all charter schools.

What that argument ignores, however, is the deeply ideological nature of the charter-school program itself. State officials seem to forget the heady rhetoric that accompanied charter schools at their birth. And it's hard to blame the tribes for feeling that promises were broken by a state that continues to advertise itself as the country's crucible for radical educational reform.

Charter schools were forged after a decadelong debate about the crisis in America's public schools--a crisis that educators, politicians and the public agreed was demonstrated in falling test scores, high dropout rates and school violence.

Liberal pundits pointed to growing class size, low teacher salaries and crumbling infrastructure, and called for increased spending. Conservatives said that would perpetuate an educational monopoly controlled by teachers' unions peddling a soft-headed, permissive social contract under the politically correct name of "multiculturalism."

Conservatives, meanwhile, called for improving the nation's public schools by increasing their incentive. They urged government subsidizing of educational choice in the form of vouchers that parents could use to send their children to private schools. Forced to compete, the public schools would learn to do more with less money or perish. Liberals said that the public-school system would collapse, replaced by private institutions heavy on religious indoctrination that would further segregate students by economic class and ethnicity.

In that atmosphere, a number of states began experimenting with various tenets in the conservative program. A limited voucher system began in Milwaukee in 1990, and the nation's first charter school, an experiment related to vouchers, opened its doors in Minnesota in 1991.

In 1994, urged on by free-market advocates at the Goldwater Institute, conservative legislators pushed for voucher legislation. Lisa Graham Keegan, newly elected as the state's top educator, supported vouchers. So did then-governor J. Fife Symington III.

The legislation didn't pass. But as a sort of consolation prize, the charter-schools law did.

The law was the least restrictive charter-school measure in the country. Nearly anyone with a decent credit history and a detailed business plan could open a public school.

Today, there are about 250 charter campuses with another 50 schools preparing to open in the upcoming school year, according to Pike, the charter-schools board president. About a third of all U.S. charter schools are in Arizona; that's twice as many as in California, the state with the second highest number of charter schools.

And whether individual charter schools serve mostly white parents interested in back-to-basics education, minority parents looking for inner-city alternatives to district schools or families seeking unique arts- or science-based curricula, all of Arizona's charter schools are immersed in the ideological tenets of a conservative movement:

* Charter schools must show that they can do more with less. In the beginning, administrators weren't thrilled about this. A lack of start-up money made it very difficult to get some schools off the ground, and there were calls for the Legislature to bail out schools that had quickly found themselves in debt trouble. Citing the political nature of the charter-school movement, legislators said they would go against the experiment to send them more cash. One school was shut down when its administrator was found to have fudged enrollment figures to get more money from the state. Others managed to get by. Pike estimates that charter schools can educate a child with about 85 percent of the funds of a public district school.

* 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.

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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