Column: Native Americans, Proposition 305 and the widow’s mite

I’ve been sharing a series of “happy maps” with readers-maps showing that Arizona has the highest percentage of students with access to a charter school in their zip code, other maps showing Arizona students have been leading the nation in academic gains. The above map from the great Garrett Archer however may be the most revealing map of all. This map shows that Arizona’s tribal communities were the only areas of the state to vote to preserve the eligibility expansion for the Empowerment Scholarship Account program in the Proposition 305 vote in 2018. In so doing, Arizona Native Americans set an important example for all of us.

Before proceeding, let me say that my purpose is not to relitigate Prop. 305. Neither the organization I worked for then or now took a stance. The public has spoken and as the French herald said in Shakespeare’s Henry V “his voice is imperial.” Congratulations to the Save Our Schools folks- you made your point, and choice supporters such as me are sad but hopefully wiser as a result.

Having said that, this map remains striking. Native American areas alone voted to expand ESA eligibility from disadvantaged populations (children with disabilities, foster care children, children attending D/F rated public schools and districts and crucially to residents of Native American tribal communities) to the population at large. Native American residents already had access to the ESA program, and they chose to share it.

Arizona has a rich system of parental choice overall, but Arizona’s Native Americans probably have the least access to it. In Maricopa County (greater Phoenix) a majority of students attend a school other than their assigned district school. School districts lead the way in choice- open enrollment students outnumber charter students approximately two to one. Charter students meanwhile outnumber private choice program students by at least three to one. Choice is being done not to districts, but primarily by districts. This is very much to their credit.

Opportunities of these sorts however can be few and far between on our rural areas and tribal communities. Distances between district schools are large, high performing options relatively scarce. Charter schools relatively scarce in comparison to the densely populated urban areas of the state, and a number of those that have opened have subsequently closed. We have no easy answers available.

Carlyle Begay, a state lawmaker whose legislative district included the Navajo County, successfully lead the effort to include residents of Native American tribal communities into the ESA eligibility pool and did so as a Democrat.

Access to high quality school options stands as one of the daunting challenges facing the Native American communities. The Arizona Republic for instance ran a series of stories about a Bureau of Indiana Affairs school located in the Grand Canyon. Isolated from the rest of the state, this school spends over $20,000 per student but shows test scores at the first and third percentile of achievement. Can ESA serve as a tool for some of the kids in these situations to find a path to fulfilling their potential? I hope it can, and they have little to lose and potentially much to gain.

Native Americans were not voting their self-interest in supporting ESA expansion. They were already included in ESA eligibility. Because “No” prevailed, the ESA program reverted to the pre-expansion program, an annual cap on the number of new participants cycles off in 2019. If “Yes” had prevailed an overall cap would have come into effect, and this could have limited Native American participation absent further action. Every tribal community residing student is eligible to participate in the ESA. Nevertheless, it was they that voted “Yes” to expand eligibility- why?

We can’t be sure, but perhaps these communities are better acquainted with the desperation that parents feel when their child is failing to flourish in a school. Perhaps it is more obvious from the tribal community areas that while open enrollment and charter schools are good things, they aren’t a solution for everyone. We parents in Maricopa County have a vast array of district, charter, magnet and private school options. We may have made the mistake of taking choice for granted. It may be the case that other communities have a better grounding in just how vital and precious a thing it is for families to have a chance to find a school that fits their child’s needs and aspirations.

Arizona’s Native American communities-those with the least amount of educational opportunity-uniquely voted to share that opportunity with others. Arizona’s Native American communities did not try to reserve ESA eligibility as a special privilege. Rather these communities voted to provide it broadly to all students.

As we put Prop. 305 behind us I hope that we can expand the opportunities available to every Arizona child in every type of school and in every community. Arizona has been uniquely innovative in creating mechanisms for educators to create their own vision of a high-quality school and to sink or swim based upon the results. It’s no accident that we’ve been leading the nation in academic improvement, and this is not something we should take for granted. The golden age of Arizona education is now, but we desperately need further improvement.

Many of us are very fortunate with regards to the education of our children. We carefully purchase our homes with an eye to attendance boundaries. We use open enrollment, we consider magnet schools, and/or enroll our children in charter schools. Those of us fortunate enough to live in this world would do well to remember that the communities with the fewest of these opportunities voted to expand opportunity further at some risk to themselves.

A Navajo proverb holds “Always assume your guest is tired, cold and hungry, and act accordingly.” Like the widow and her mite, Arizona’s Native American communities offered what little that they had and revealed once again the great nobility of their spirit. This is an example to which all Arizonans should aspire. We should not hoard opportunity, even if it superficially seems to our own advantage to do so. Rather we should provide opportunity to everyone.

Matthew Ladner

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