Jeremiah Cota: Bored student teaches school choice

Ben Giles//August 5, 2019

Jeremiah Cota: Bored student teaches school choice

Ben Giles//August 5, 2019

Jeremiah Cota
Jeremiah Cota

Jeremiah Cota didn’t have many education options available to him in high school. On the White Mountain Apache Reservation, there were two poorly-rated public high schools, and not much else to choose from. After working for U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar and Americans for Prosperity, now Cota is working to ensure that students from his own tribe, the San Carlos Apache Tribe, have alternatives with Prenda, a company trying to establish “micro-schools” on the reservation and elsewhere.

Where’d you grow up?

I grew up mainly in Prescott, Arizona. My dad was a minister, so I’m a preacher’s kid. So we kind of moved around a little bit, but mainly I grew up in Prescott, Arizona. We moved out to the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation when I was in high school. My dad got a church out there, so we were out there for my high school years… I’m actually a tribal member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, but we were living on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation at the time. Sister tribes, basically.

What schools did you attend, in Prescott and then on the reservation?

I went to public school in Prescott the entire time, except for high school. So elementary school and middle school I went to public schools there. And then I went over to public high school on the White Mountain Apache Indian Reservation…. There was a difference. Even though I’m basically from the same culture, there’s still a cultural difference. There’s learning styles that are different. I do remember, when I went to the school on the reservation, being bored out of my mind. They were teaching stuff that I had already learned several years ago.

How so?

There’s this idea that the classroom couldn’t move forward until every single person understood. I remember in Prescott there was much more emphasis on math and science. And then going out to the Indian reservation, there was much more emphasis on making sure everyone understood very basic premises. There was a lot of students who couldn’t read, who didn’t know basic math functions, and the class wouldn’t move forward until those students, everyone in the class knew… I would get my assignments done in 10 minutes and then sit there for an hour and just be bored out of my mind. I think that helped shape some of my policies on school choice, and why school choice is so important. There are individuals in our school systems who are literally just being held back for the collective whole, I guess is what you want to call it… It’s a similar experience within my own tribe, the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation. We just want to do the best. Let’s try to improve the entire system.

Were there any other high schools to choose from?

There was one private school there. We went to go visit the school, and it was super tiny… Your options are very limited there. There’s a boarding school there, which, I was not going to do a boarding school. And those are your only options. You don’t have much choice.

Was your high school experience what helped pique your interest in politics?

I was already kind of tuned in to politics, so it was just something I did. I was always in student government in high school and college. It was always something of interest to me, just being politically minded and politically in tune. The real issues that drove me to a more conservative side is the faith-based element and the pro-life issues. Those are what really attracted me to the movement. And what really drove me to Congressman Paul Gosar’s office was, during the Obama years, the expansion of health care, and the Affordable Care Act that came out of that. I looked at that as basically socialized medicine — this is not the solution for our country. Growing up on the Indian reservation, we do have socialized medicine there already. It’s called the Indian Health Service. Yet we have some of the lowest life expectancy rates of any demographic group out there, and our care is already rationed.

When did you start to focus specifically on school choice as a policy issue?

So this happened last year. This happened during the Red for Ed movement. They were screaming, “More, more, more funding,” that we need more and more money. It was telling to me when they just kept saying, “More money, more money, more money.” And then you go back and look at the district schools on the Indian reservation that receive $20,000 per kid. My district at the time was receiving $21,000, my tribal school district, yet they’re F-rated. They only have two public schools, and they’re both F-rated… They haven’t improved. So this idea that more money will translate into higher academic performance, I don’t know where that comes from… In this case, I was just alerted to the fact that I don’t think money is always the solution here.

Is school choice the solution then?

What do we have to lose? That’s kind of where it came from. I looked at my own school district on the Indian reservation, which was like, we can only go up! That was really what it came down to. We can only go up. Frankly, I care about the community and I care about the kids, so this was just like, why not? Let’s try it. Let’s try something else. What we’re doing isn’t working, so let’s try something else.

Where does Prenda come in?

Prenda is just a school start up. We’re micro-schooling, kind of a blend of home schooling and traditional schools. My base there is just recruitment of more students and teachers. Just saying, hey, let’s try this… Their kids aren’t doing well in school – they may be being bullied, they may be bored. That’s sometimes the issue. And just connecting those parents, connecting teachers and then connecting them with guides, as we call them — people that want to teach those kids. In the past year, we did the San Carlos school. We had six kids when we started. We set up the class. We painted walls, we put fixed furniture in there. We were literally bringing school to kids, like school in a box.