Charter schools that focus on the cultural needs of Native American students could soon get a leg up in a competition for federal funding.
Late last week, the U.S. Department of Education proposed a tweak to its charter grant competition that would prioritize schools that serve large numbers of Native American students. The proposal would also give an advantage to applications for charters that serve high school students and rural communities.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. Charters have fewer regulations than traditional public schools, and advocates say the structure enables them to experiment with different curricula and programs. In Washington state, they're a relatively new phenomenon: With two more slated to open, there will be 12 charter schools during the 2018-2019 school year.
Nationwide, Native communities have used charters to create schools that mitigate language loss, teach tribal history and combat forced cultural assimilation. In 2013, there were only 31 Native-centered charters, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
There’s research showing that tribal schools and language immersion can help improve outcomes for Native youth, 49 percent of whom don’t graduate from high school, according to a 2015 study from the Journal of American Indian Education. In the 2016-2017 school year, about 50 percent of Seattle's Native students graduated high school within four years, trailing at least 14 percentage points behind any other demographic group.
Washington has a relatively large population of people who identify as Native American, according to the 2010 census. But even with a possible endorsement from the Trump administration, there’s little reason for tribes to create charters in Washington state, according to Michael Vendiola, former director of the state’s Office of Native Education and a citizen of the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
That’s because a state law from 2013 allowed federally recognized tribes to create a “State-Tribal Education Compact Schools.” The compact structure gives tribes the same degree of autonomy that comes with charters. It also gives them access to state grants usually reserved for school districts.
“Part of the beauty of the compact-school contract is that it’s written between the tribe and the state," said Vendiola, who is now education director for the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community.
Mark Jacobson, who leads the Quileute Tribal School in La Push — one of five compact schools in operation — said he also doesn’t see much need for Native charters in Washington.
The compact allowed his school to qualify for one of 12 dual-language grants offered to districts across the state. With that money, the school hired a Quileute linguist and curriculum specialist to write new lessons and train staff members.
Jacobson also used grant money to double the teaching staff for the K-12 school, from seven to 16 for the roughly 95 students enrolled this upcoming school year.
The money gave the school much-needed relief, Jacobson said. Before becoming a compact school in 2016, Quileute Tribal School had to share resources with other public schools in the Quileute Valley School District. It still receives funding from the Bureau of Indian Education, as do two other compact schools, but Jacobson said the money is so little “it’s almost criminal.”
A Native charter, Vendiola said, might make sense in Washington in one scenario: a school that serves many Native students, but is run by a district, not a tribe. He pointed to the Salish School of Spokane, a language-immersion school, as a possible example of a school that could benefit from charter-school status.