Tribal School Choice

As the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) considers how to realize success for Native students, we have advocated for Native control of Native education. We have advocated for tribal choice.

Tribal school choice is a different from school choice, a widely used term that is not always defined. Tribal school choice refers to tribally led, culture-based leadership.  School Choice refers to the ability of parents, guardians, or family members to choose a school and education program for their children. Tribal Schools of Choice are generally innovative schools that are often not traditional public schools and seek to fulfill the needs of Native students through unique models. Such schools can include charter schools, Native language immersion schools, magnet schools, and digital learning schools.

What does tribal choice look like for Native students?

To understand what tribal choice means for Native students, a basic understanding of where Native students attend school is critical. A few facts and the map below should help. Approximately 620,000, or 93 percent, of Native children are currently enrolled in public schools, both urban and rural, while 45,000, or 7 percent, attend schools within the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) system. There are 184 BIE-funded schools (including 14 peripheral dormitories) located on 63 reservations in 23 states.

Tribal Choice: Our Experience and Perspective

For decades, tribes and Native communities have been striving to create school systems that are reflective of the tribal community’s needs, enable tribes to own responsibility for the development of their students, and empower communities to educate their students consistent with their values. As a result, we welcome the renewed discussion of choice in education and look forward to engaging to make sure that tribes and Native communities and leaders have full authority to lead choice as it plays out for Native students.

There are two distinctions in a tribally driven model of school choice. The first is recognition of tribal sovereignty—the inherent right of tribal nations to decide how to govern their members. For tribes, sovereignty must be respected just as treaties between the federal government and the tribes must be honored. The second distinction is that tribal choice is grounded in Native epistemology—Native ways of knowing and believing. A distinctive Native education system, guided by Native epistemology, creates an environment that meets the student’s needs academically, socially, culturally, psychologically, and spiritually.