Tribal Compacting Is School Choice

The Alaska Federation of Natives (AFN) recently received a $1 million grant, funded by the federal CARES Act, to research a “legal and practical pathway” for tribal compacting of education. Tribal compacting is an education agreement between the state and tribes where local authority for K-12 schools is vested in tribes, not school districts. Tribal compacting would give tribes more school choice in K-12 education, offer a chance to explore new ways of certifying teachers, and leverage and secure additional funding not available to the state or local districts. A broken system that fails to educate our children needs to be disruptedand tribal compacting creates more options that could deliver better outcomes for Alaskan students. 

Tribal compacting is one form of school choice because it allows tribes to create and families to choose schools that best serve their needs. School choice recognizes that students have different sets of talents, interests, and challenges, and tribal compact schools offer one more way to address the unique challenges posed by rural education. Tribal compacting restores education to local control, where communities are better situated to identify and address the needs of their students. In communities where both a traditional public school and a tribal compact school are established, the options multiply for families to pick the kind of education that works best for their student.  

K-12 State-Tribal Education Compact Schools (STECs) would be open to Native and non-Native students and take on the responsibility of education that the state would otherwise be obligated to provide for those students who enroll. STECs might be language immersion schools, online schools, or any model that works for the tribe, students, and families. Some tribes already operate their own colleges, as with Ilisagvik College in Alaska, and tribal compacting has been used successfully with the federal government to provide healthcare, through the Alaska Tribal Health Compact. Being able to operate primary or secondary schools can be a natural extension of authority used successfully in these contexts.  

The Dunleavy administration previously signaled its support for tribal compacting, and this grant to AFN will facilitate research and community input about tribal compacting. Though legislation to establish a pilot program stalled during the 31st legislature, the grant awarded to AFN is a good step to opening dialogue with Alaska Native leaders, assessing the feasibility of tribal compacting in Alaska, and designing a comprehensive path forward. AFN’s expertise and unique knowledge position it well to draft this plan.  

Tribal compacting could have a myriad of benefits, primarily the flexibility to teach Native languages, design unique curriculum and teaching methods, and better allocate resources. Early research of Canadian tribes suggests that when half of tribal members have conversational knowledge of their native language, suicide rates plummeted to near-zero. In addition, student outcomes improve with a “culturally and linguistically relevant teaching model,” as demonstrated by Ayaprun Elitnaurvik, a language immersion school in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Ayaprun Elitnaurvik reported 12 percent of students proficient in ELA (English Language Arts) and 25 percent of students proficient in mathematics in the 2018-2019 school year. In comparison, the Lower Kuskokwim School District reported 6 percent of students proficient in ELA and 9 percent of students proficient in mathematics the same year.  

Alaska Natives have a wealth of knowledge to share with members of their communitieseven, and perhaps especially, those without formal education training. Tribal compact schools have the potential not only to loosen the stranglehold of local school districts on education, but also the stranglehold of four-year college degrees on teacher certification. With tribal compacting, Alaska has the chance to pioneer other ways of certifying teachers that allow members of the community with prized expertise to teach, without enduring the arduous and expensive process of obtaining a four-year degree, completing a teacher-preparation program, and passing a gamut of standardized tests. Streamlining Alaska’s teacher certification to be more welcoming to career-switchers and knowledgeable community members would allow students to benefit from the rich experiences and skills of their communities. 

Although Washington State pioneered the tribal compacting model, Alaska should not be constrained by its example, as Alaska faces unique challenges with delivering effective education. Alaska’s tribal compact schools would be free to respond to the needs of students and parents in the way that makes the most sense for their communities. Yet Washington’s example offers a helpful starting point for thinking about tribal compacting.  

Washington authorized tribal compacting in 2013 and offers seven tribal compact schools for students. Tribes apply to the state to create a compact school with a four-page application ensuring the compact school complies with financial, assessment, and reporting requirements. Tribes outline the school’s vision and mission, its program design and instructional framework, and other details. In addition, all contracts have explicit terms for nonrenewal and termination for contract violations. Washington state law requires that compact schools adhere to the statewide assessment process, reporting requirements, and curriculum requirements, just as a traditional public school would. In addition, though certified instructional staff are required, noncertificated staff of “unusually competence and in exceptional cases” may be hired. Though this is a good provision, it is a shame that it may only occur in “exceptional cases,” as this may restrict the benefits students derive from the experiences and skills of their communities.   

Tribal compact schools promote flexibility for tribes to try an innovative approach to education that may yield better outcomes for their communities while remaining accountable for teaching basic skills. Washington has developed a means of ensuring that compact schools are accountable for the outcomes of their students while remaining responsive to their needs. There is no reason Alaska could not do the same. 

Alaska could use Washington’s example to ensure accountability for outcomes. However, Alaska is far different than Washington, and how tribal compacting might work in Alaska will be guided by AFN’s research. The dispersion of rural Alaska communities poses challenges for some districts: would students congregate in regional locations? How would tribal compact schools be implemented? Which tribes would be responsible? Although there are no easy answers to these questions, communities may well rise to the challenge of providing quality education to their children if given the opportunity.  

Extending the idea of tribal compacting to K-12 education, which is school choice for tribes, would support education that works best for Alaska’s rural communities. Tribal compacting would allow schools to innovate with the support of their communities and potentially improve outcomes for rural students.