NARF Pushes Native American CLASS Act

Rob Capriccioso
8/11/11

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF) is refocusing attention to the testimony of NARF staff attorney Amy Bowers before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last month in support of the Native Culture, Language, and Access for Success in Schools Act (CLASS Act).

Bowers and NARF appeared on behalf of its client, the Tribal Education Departments National Assembly (TEDNA), which is made up of 156 tribes focused on improving the academic performance of Native American students. She testified in favor of a new Native-focused education law, saying it would dramatically increase tribal sovereignty in Indian education and would mark a policy shift in education law toward recognition of the rights of tribes to educate their tribal members. The law is pending in the Senate.

“It incorporates very well many of the key recommendations that TEDNA, other Indian organizations and major reports have urged—elevation of the role of tribal governments in education, meaningful support of tribal education agencies (TEAs), and clear provisions for partnerships among other education entities and tribes,” Bowers offered in written testimony. “The bill’s provisions regarding tribal access, TEAs, and cooperative agreements…are indeed unprecedented.”

Bowers said that many tribes and individuals have worked long and hard to draft  S.1262, and she and many Native American education advocates are pushing for its advancement.

The bill was introduced in June by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, who chairs the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

“In many regions of our country, Native students suffer from the lowest graduation rates and poorest academic performance,” Akaka said in offering the legislation. “This comprehensive bill outlines a new vision of education built on Native priorities. As a former teacher, principal and administrator, I know the power that integrating culture and increasing access to opportunities can have in improving outcomes for our Native students. To build a successful future for our Native communities, we must start with success in our schools.”

The bill contains a set of provisions that address language and culture-based education, local control and parental involvement, and teacher training and development. It has been co-sponsored by Sens. Tim Johnson, D-North Dakota, and Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii.

NARF officials note that the federal government has a trust responsibility to provide education for Native American students. “For too long this has not been met and these students are struggling,” the organization said in a press release highlighting Bowers’ testimony. “American Indian and Alaska Native students are the lowest performing group on standardized tests. The national high school dropout rate of Native American students is 50 percent and even higher in many states.”

NARF says that tribal education departments can help reverse these troubling trends by ensuring education is culturally appropriate. The organization offered the following examples:

The Pueblo of Jemez Walatowa High Charter School has a graduation rate of 89.4 percent. The Hoopa Valley Tribe learning center increased at risk students’ grades by two letters.

The Cherokee Nation has contributed over $19 million in eight years to public schools and has worked with Apple Computers to make the Cherokee language available on iPhones, iPods, and Apple laptops.

Bowers’ full testimony is available online.

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