Empowerment Scholarship Accounts bring hope to Arizona’s Native American Families
By Kim Martinez
Today marks the end of a special tribal community enrollment period for the Arizona Empowerment Scholarship Account program. As some Arizona Native American families rush to get their applications in to the Arizona Department of Education by 3 p.m. today, they probably are not aware of the quick work that went into providing this school choice opportunity to their communities, but they are certainly thankful for the new options.
“As parents learn about choice the ESA program provides and about options in their child’s education, they are increasingly more appreciative,” said Arizona State Sen. Carlyle W. Begay. “One mother just expressed to me how happy she is now that she can enroll all of her children at St. Michael Indian School for the upcoming academic year, which is a great school that’s been on the Navajo Nation since 1902. Up until now she could only afford tuition for one child.”
In an effort to spark change in K-12 education on tribal lands, Sen. Begay fought to bring a universal ESA law allowing any child living on tribal lands to qualify for the program. After the bill was signed into law by Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in March, the Arizona Department of Education jumped into action by creating an ESA enrollment period specifically for those students living on a reservation.
The shortened 4-week special enrollment period has already increased enrollment at some private schools on or near tribal lands.
“We believe we will have nearly 100 new ESA students, who because of this opportunity, can attend St. Michael this coming year,” said Dot Teso, president of St. Michael Indian School on the Navajo Nation. “It’s like giving these families hope in their children’s future because their parents know if their kid comes to St. Michael they will graduate high school and then that student will most likely go on to college.”
St. Michael’s high graduation statistics are a rarity in Arizona’s 22 reservation communities. According to the Arizona Department of Education, Native American students are ranked last in almost every education matrix when compared to all other ethnic groups in the state. Because of these bleak statistics, education is a critical topic for tribal leaders and families.
With the extreme rural landscape, lack of transportation and limited number of schools, the ESA program puts all options on the table and allows tribal parents to access and use the best educational option for their child.