Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Demonstrators outside the Supreme Court in Washington in December 2015 during arguments in a case over affirmative action at the University of Texas.

9 Great Reasons to Be Hopeful About Native Education

Tanya H. Lee

Efforts to improve the educational opportunities and outcomes for minorities in the U.S. have been fitful, and results have come slowly. For American Indian and Alaska Native students, scores on the standardized National Assessment of Educational Progress (the “Nation’s Report Card”) for reading and mathematics pretty much held steady—at the lowest end of the spectrum for all ethnic/racial groups—between 2009 and 2013. Chronic absenteeism, schools in poor physical condition, inadequate resources, inexperienced teachers and a high school graduation rate of only 67 percent are persistent, discouraging and oft-reported challenges facing AI/AN students, teachers and communities.

Nonetheless, there are reasons to be hopeful — recent court decisions and policy initiatives mean improvements are likely coming in the not-too-distant future.

Supreme Court Affirms Affirmative Action

On June 23, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that colleges may use race as one factor in admissions decisions. “The ruling of the court is one step in the journey to heal the wounds caused by the forced assimilation,” said National Indian Education Association President Patricia Whitefoot. ”Education, which was used as a weapon of war, can now be used to propel students forward.”

Affirmative action is one strategy for addressing past discrimination against minorities, and it helps create diverse student bodies in institutions of higher education. California’s Prop 209 banned affirmative action in university and college admissions in 1996. In 1995, 459 American Indian students applied to the UC system and 248 (54 percent) enrolled for their freshman year; in 2013, 709 applied, but only 176 (25 percent) enrolled, according to a university report. In 2012, almost 54 percent of California’s high school graduates were Black, Latino and Native American, but only 27 percent of the freshmen admitted to the UC system belonged to those three groups.

Following the Supreme Court’s decision last spring in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, California and the other eight states that have banned affirmative action in college admissions now have reason to reconsider.

RELATED: SCOTUS Hands Tribes One More Win, Upholds Race-Conscious College Admissions

Federal Education Law Give Tribes A Voice

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 has replaced the No Child Left Behind Act with legislation that gives tribes an unprecedented role in deciding how American Indian children in public schools are educated.

National Indian Education Association Executive Director Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee, said, “This [law] is a huge change for Native education, the first steps toward self-determination over public education on our lands. It is the first time states and local educational agencies will have to talk to tribes…. When tribes, governments, schools and the community have an active voice in [their schools], that’s the best step you can take to improve education.”

Local control is an overarching principle of the new law. For example, it prohibits the federal government from recommending, let alone mandating, which standards or tests states will use. And states or local educational agencies, not the federal government, will determine which schools need improvement and what—if anything—the schools would be required to do about it. Both of these provisions radically increase local control of school systems and thereby potentially increase the opportunity for tribes to have a say.

RELATED: Size Matters: Decoding the New Education Law

RELATED: 9 Ways the New Education Law Is a Win for Indian Country

RELATED: Double Jeopardy? Congress Passes Education Do Over

Cobell Scholarships Available

Indigenous Education, Inc., had awarded just over $1.9 million in scholarships by the end of the 2015-2016 spring semester, with roughly 80 percent of that amount going to undergraduates.

The Cobell Education Scholarship Fund was established as part of the 2009 $3.4-billion Cobell Settlement, which ended a lawsuit brought by Elouise Cobell, Blackfeet, against the federal government alleging that the U.S. had mismanaged trust fund accounts for half a million individual American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The scholarship initiative is funded in part by the Land Buy-Back Program for Tribal Nations—also authorized by the Cobell Settlement—wherein the U.S. buys out fractionated interests in land held by individual Indians and holds those lands in trust for the tribes participating in the program.

The Interior Department transfers money from the buy-back program to the scholarship fund as a percent of the land sales completed during that quarter. The amount that may be transferred is capped at $60 million. As of July 2016, nearly $40 million had been transferred to the Scholarship Fund.

Students interested in applying for Cobell Scholarships can find information at

RELATED: First Round of Cobell Scholarships (Almost) on the Way

New School Construction

In January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell announced funding was available to replace the last two schools on the 2004 list of Bureau of Indian Education schools in desperate need of major repairs or replacement. The list of the next 11 schools to be renovated or replaced was announced in April, and funding is available to begin planning and design for some of those schools.

Separately, Congress appropriated funds to replace the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School in Minnesota. Nonetheless, there remains a $1-billion backlog in needed construction for BIE schools.

RELATED: 11 BIE Schools Win Replacement Lottery

RELATED: Feds Don’t Know How Bad BIE Schools Are; McCain Offers Solution


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