We live in an overly contentious political climate today that has sadly resulted in education becoming synonymous with politics. There was a recent Arizona Capitol Times guest column titled, “Navajo Nation needs no school vouchers or meddling of any kind,” where the author distorts and misplaces the purpose, need and impact that Empowerment Scholarship Accounts have within our tribal communities across the State of Arizona, including the Navajo Nation.
On any reservation, we do not have the time to fight over whether public education is better than private education, and vice versa. To begin with, Native families rarely have this option of choosing private over public education. Secondly, the purpose of ESAs is to address the longstanding
education crisis – our schools are plagued with high dropout rates, low graduation rates, and chronic absenteeism, and perform the poorest of any other ethnic group in meeting state standards. ESAs give the power of choice to parents and families. The basis for the author’s resistance seems to be merely that we are too proud to accept funds from the state. The author says, “The Navajo Nation does not need the state’s financial assistance (state tax dollars) to invest in our kids. In other words, we don’t want or need any meddling in our tribal affairs, including directing us to fund state voucher programs.”
When it comes to providing options to educate our children, we should welcome it. They are our greatest asset, after all, and they will become our leaders. So why do we resist giving our children the option to choose a different education model, which undeniably provides different benefits that public schools do not?
Like the author, I too was born and raised on the Navajo Nation, one of eight tribal communities that I represented as former Arizona State Senator for Legislative District 7. I, too, was raised with the traditions and culture of our ancestors. But the importance of working together was also instilled in me, especially for the advancement and improvement of our tribal communities.
With 22 tribes in the state, Arizona has the second largest Native American student population in the U.S. To preserve our rich history and culture, we often share the stories with our youth of the powerful Native leaders that have served before us. Among those was the great Navajo leader Chief Manuelito, who led the Navajo people home from Hwéeldi, or The Long Walk, a tragic time in our U.S. history. Two thousand of my Navajo ancestors perished during The Long Walk – they were starved into submission, held as prisoners, and many died of sickness. As our people were decimated and on the brink of extinction, the Chief came to the realization that we had to educate our children and give them the opportunity to climb the education ladder in order to survive and thrive as a people. That is when he spoke his iconic words: “We have to fight the injustices of our people with education. They have people out there called lawyers, doctors and engineers and that is how we will win the battle. Education is the ladder.”
When I served as an Arizona state senator, the Chief’s words guided my decision-making and one goal that became a priority for me was to provide more educational opportunities for tribal families across the state, namely by giving Native parents the freedom, choice, and resources to pay for a private or online education, or home schooling through the ESA program. The result to date has been many heartfelt stories from parents and students who have used ESA funds. They have shared their experiences with tearful gratitude for this program, which has kept many Navajo teens from dropping out of high school and has elevated their proficiencies in math, science and reading.
The purpose of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program is to empower – empower Native parents to make the choice about what education model best suits their children and will give them the best opportunity to excel in school. No Native parent should be told “no” if they choose to remove their children from public schools, especially those on tribal lands that are perennially underperforming.
The Navajo Chief’s great wisdom was that “education is the ladder,” implying that there must be upward mobility. There is no upward mobility in keeping the status quo of forcing our children to stay in an education model that is not preparing them. The most current AZ Merit results released by the Arizona Department of Education cuts at the knees of the author’s stance that public schools are doing enough to prepare our children. For the Window Rock School District, located on the Navajo Nation, an average of 59 percent of Navajo children across all grades are “minimally proficient” in reading, which is considered the lowest category. In math, 56 percent students are “minimally proficient.” In science, 48 percent of Navajo children are considered to be falling far below their respective grade level. If this does not constitute an educational crisis, I do not know what does. This is only one school district, but it reflects the reality across many tribal communities in Arizona. I know our Arizona public school districts in our Tribal communities are doing the best they can with the federal/state resources, but we should welcome all opportunities to education our Native American children.
I am not saying that every family should use an ESA or that every child should be in a private school. What I am saying is that having no choice but to be in a public-school setting is no choice at all. ESAs offer the power of choice to Native families. It is a parent’s most basic, fundamental and sacred right to choose how they educate their children. ESAs simply give our Native parents another option to exercise that right.
Carlyle W. Begay is a former state senator who represented Legislative District 7.