When eight Navajo families in Window Rock received a letter from the Arizona Department of Education last month, they were shocked by what was inside.
These families were all using Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, or ESAs, to enroll their children at Hilltop Christian School, which is located on private land inside tribal boundaries about 300 yards over the New Mexico border. Although the department had previously approved their use of ESA funds at Hilltop, ADE was now not only shutting down their accounts but also demanding they pay back thousands of dollars for years of tuition – dollars that these low-income families did not have.
Even worse, they are now faced with the prospect of having to return to the public school system that has failed their children.
I can relate to their predicament. I also grew up and attended public school on a reservation, in a small rural community with limited economic resources. I am a tribal member of the Apache Tribe in San Carlos, where the reservation’s only two public schools are F-rated.
Although I appreciate the opportunities I have been afforded, too many school systems within tribal communities are failing. Window Rock’s public schools are no different.
The Arizona Department of Education gives three out of four schools a grade of D or F with one school getting a C. Only about 10 to 15 percent of Window Rock students pass the state tests for math, English, and science compared to about 40 to 50 percent statewide, and they’re about 10 percentage points less likely to graduate high school.
It’s no wonder then that Window Rock families are desperately seeking alternatives.
Some have argued that rather than give families other educational opportunities, we should just “fix the public schools.” That sounds great in theory but hasn’t worked in practice. Window Rock has had ample time to improve but has made little to no progress.
Money isn’t the issue. According to the latest report by the Arizona Auditor General’s Office, the Window Rock school district spent more than $16,000 per pupil in 2018. That’s over $6,000 more per pupil than the statewide average. Window Rock also spends about 75 percent more per pupil on administration than the state average. By contrast, Hilltop Christian’s tuition is less than $3,000.
Smaller classrooms? At 14 students per teacher, Window Rock already has a considerably smaller ratio than the 18.4-to-1 state average.
Better paid teachers? Window Rock’s average teacher salary is nearly $58,000, which is about $9,000 more than the state average.
We should work to improve the district schools in Window Rock and elsewhere, but kids need quality options right now.
A proposed legislative fix to hold the ESA families harmless for the previous ADE administration’s mistake is a good start, but not enough. The bill would kick these kids out of their school after the next academic year – all because they crossed an arbitrary line running through the Navajo reservation.
The location of the provider shouldn’t matter. What matters is that Arizona children have access to a quality education. Lawmakers should amend the statute accordingly and allow the Window Rock families – and ESA families statewide – to gain access to quality schools no matter where they are located.
Jeremiah Cota is a lobbyist and school choice policy advocate, a certified 6th -12th grade teacher in Arizona, a tribal member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and currently employed with Prenda Schools with a focus on expanding school choice options within tribal communities.