National PTA’s Every Child in Focus campaign seeks to highlight every child in our education system, and November is the month of the American Indian Child. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I advocated in Washington, DC for several years on behalf of my Tribe. During my tenure, no issue was more important than ensuring an equitable education for Cherokee students. Joining the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) in 2012 to serve all Native students, I now work to guarantee their needs are addressed at the federal level, as well as in state and local governments.
Unfortunately, while the 116,000 Native students in my home state of Oklahoma are more likely to be proficient or advanced in mathematics and reading than those in other states, Native students overall are only graduating high school at a rate of 77% as compared to 86% for the majority population nationally. Out of those who do graduate, preparedness levels are disturbingly low as only one in four high school graduates are college-ready in math and one in three are prepared in reading.
Working to reverse the disparaging statistics facing Native students is fulfilling, but often overwhelming. Not because our students underachieve, but because the federal and public education systems serving those students have failed to adequately address their academic, familial, and cultural needs. Those same systems will only continue to undermine our students as draconian budget reductions under sequestration disproportionately affect our communities.
While education policy reform must increase tribal and family engagement in Native-serving education systems, sequestration – or the $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board federal budget reductions – is the single most important factor currently affecting our people. Critical Native education programs that increase familial involvement and address other academic needs are getting their feet taken out from under them by the federal government.
Sequestration reduced Head Start programs by $414 million in 2013, with Indian Head Start programs losing approximately $12 million. Nationwide, Head Start cuts equated to 57,000 fewer children served and more than 18,000 staff members suffering pay cuts or the loss of their jobs. As a key early education program, Head Start is instrumental for increasing Native family engagement in the earliest years of a child’s education. Such reductions will only decrease the ability for Native families to engage and assist their child as they progress through school. Additionally, Impact Aid funds that often provide a majority percentage of funding (in some cases, as much as 80 percent of an overall budget) to over 710 schools serving Native students were reduced by $67 million.
As outlined in an October 2013 report from the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS), sequestration forced school districts to reduce staff, cut after-school programs, forgo necessary construction projects, and postpone vehicle maintenance, putting children at risk. While some tribes have the ability to supplement the budget reductions, not every community has the resources available, nor is it their role, to reduce sequestration’s impacts. Even as some communities invest to maintain funding levels, as sequestration continues, their ability to assist local budgets will decrease over the long term as short-term measures are exhausted.
As cuts increase, Native communities and schools cannot expect to reverse the trends highlighted in the Education Trust’s recent report, The State of Education for Native Students. The achievement gap will only widen as education programs and schools disproportionately reliant on federal funds have their budgets increasingly constrained. Native students – those who need equity in educational excellence most – will go unserved.
As political bickering in Washington continues over the 2014 budget and the healthcare overhaul, those focused on partisan sound bites are ensuring the troubling statistics regarding Native students will persist no matter how hard Native communities and advocates work to reverse them. As an advocate for Native students, I call on all tribes and Native education stakeholders to strengthen our resolve and voice our anger over sequestration and the failure of the federal government to uphold its trust responsibility to Native education.
As PTAs across the country seek ways to engage Native families, I call on my fellow education advocates can help this effort by ensuring that Native students are highlighted in education reform initiatives during this year’s Native American Heritage month and each month thereafter. Only through our coordinated efforts will Washington hear our calls to protect America’s most vulnerable populations. We must work together to compel Congress and the Administration to make sure Native students have equal access to a fully-funded education system that prepares them to succeed academically and become the future leaders who will ensure that Native communities thrive.
Members of both National PTA and the National Indian Education Association can take action against the sequester cuts by visiting National PTA’s Takes Action website and sending a message to Congress! Help make your voice heard in Congress today!
Clint J. Bowers currently serves in Washington, DC as the Policy and Research Associate for the National Indian Education Association and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, located in Oklahoma.