Affirming Tribal Sovereignty Through Tribally Operated Compact and Charter Schools


November 5, 2018


Native people are uniquely situated in the U.S. education system—both historically and legally.

Historically, education was used as a tool to assimilate Native people.

Legally, the federal government sought to assimilate Native people through boarding schools.

The negative impacts of this not-so distant period of federal Indian policy can still be felt today through the loss of Native languages and fracturing of Native families and communities.

In 1975, after many years of Native-led advocacy efforts across the country, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.

This legislation ushered in a new era of federal Indian policy that focused on a commitment to the meaningful advancement of Indian self-determination.

Since then, as tribes have focused on rebuilding their nations and reversing the negative impacts of previous eras of federal Indian policy, education has come to represent an important expression of tribal sovereignty.

Achieving Policy Victories at the State Level

In Washington, tribes can operate schools by compacting with the superintendent of public instruction. In Oklahoma, tribes can authorize their own charter schools.

Native people designed and fought for these pieces of legislation, and even though they are two different policy mechanisms, they have the same result: Tribes can operate schools.

The importance of these policy achievements is particularly significant when considering that, in a previous era, boarding schools were used as a tool for oppression and assimilation, whereas compact and charter schools represent self-determination and revitalization.

Recognizing Schools’ Important Role

Schools impart values to their students that shape the future of communities. Schools are also crucial for building the human capital necessary to advance the economic conditions in these communities.

In the United States, we value local control of education and educational choice. Tribally operated compact and charter schools represent mechanisms that fulfill these important dimensions while honoring the commitment to advance meaningful self-determination policy for Native people.

Additionally, schools operated by tribes can be designed to be more culturally responsive, with a focus on developing tribal citizens who can meet the future demands of tribal nations.

Here are some things states can do to support tribes in their efforts to create and operate tribal compact or charter schools:

Affirm tribal sovereignty. Even though U.S. education policy mandates “timely and meaningful” consultation with tribes, sovereignty is often undermined when tribes participate in state decision-making processes that affect Native students.

For states and districts, it is important to affirm tribal sovereignty and engage in dialogue with tribes to develop meaningful partnerships that emphasize teaching Native languages and embedding Native culture into curricula and schools. Research shows that doing so can improve outcomes for all students—not just Native students.

Provide support and allow time to see results. Reversing over two centuries of destructive policies against Native people does not happen overnight. Along those lines, tribally operated schools need time to test their ideas. They also need opportunities to fail and try again, which creates space for innovation.

Some tribes already operate their own colleges or immersion schools; being able to operate primary or secondary schools can become a natural extension of this important work.

Whether it is through compacting, charter authorization or some other tribally created innovation, policymakers at the local, state and federal levels should foster the legislative space and provide the financial support necessary for tribes that want to operate their own schools.

Further, we should always ask ourselves how we can better affirm tribal sovereignty in all realms, not just education. It is a legal imperative—and a moral one.