Navajo Nation Families Threatened by the Ariz. Dept. of Education, Denied a Quality Education
Window Rock, AZ- The American Federation for Children, the nation’s voice for educational choice, is alerting the public of a crisis situation for 10 Navajo students whose parents put them in one of the only good schools on their reservation. The tribal families all qualify for state funds to be able to pay tuition at private schools through the Empowerment Scholarship Account program (ESA). After two years of being allowed to use the funds at a small private school located less than a mile into New Mexico, and yet still on reservation land, the families started receiving 10-day demand letters for repayment of thousands of dollars to the state. After the families tried many different ways to reach out to the department and Superintendent Hoffman, they asked for AFC to step in and be their voice.
AFC documented the situation and helped the Navajo families tell their side of the story in a recently released video.
What makes this situation even more alarming, data shows that over 90 percent of the 1,912 K-12 public school students in Window Rock are attending failing schools. This is unacceptable and the very reason that the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program and educational choice are so essential to Arizona families.
AFC issued the following statements:
“Superintendent Hoffman and the Arizona Department of Education sent outrageous demand letters that were callous, insensitive, and considered by some as extortion, requiring innocent Navajo families who had been previously approved in the ESA program to now suddenly be forced to pay thousands of dollars within 10 days to the Department for their children’s education. AFC, the Goldwater Institute, state legislators, and the Navajo families all had previously reached out to Superintendent Hoffman and/or ADE privately hoping to solve this problem internally. Those efforts have been in vain. We made sure that the Navajo people had a voice and that it was loud enough to finally get her attention after weeks and weeks of reaching out. We will always fight to provide opportunities to the disadvantaged children surrounded by chronically underperforming schools.
Now that the Superintendent has finally agreed to work on a more reasonable proposal (which includes no longer demanding a repayment from the families to pay for their children’s education), she is still only willing to give the families a one-year transition period and then the children face heading back into a failing public school. Make no mistake, the Navajo families do not back this proposal and are very disappointed and angry that they are still being trampled on after they pleaded with the state to fix this disparity through changing the state law to accommodate their needs.”
– Steve Smith, State Director for the American Federation for Children
“The first thing I want them [ADE] to do is retract the letter that was originally written that demanded for the families to pay back the scholarship, I would like them to issue a formal letter. You already approved the scholarship and in some cases, it’s been two years! Is this what people call Indian giver? You give and then you take away. The schools surrounding us are failing, you want to send my grandson back there?”
– Susanna Foster, Navajo Grandmother; Grandson attends Hilltop using an ESA
“The Superintendent and the whole staff were very insensitive to what life is like on the Navajo Nation. Some of our parents live so rural that they don’t have physical addresses, or internet access. Our families and children are our heart and soul and every Native American in our culture is taught to respect everyone in our community from the newborn child to our elders. It was culturally-insensitive and disrespectful for Superintendent Hoffman to come to our land recently and not bother to meet with the Navajo families that she was strong-arming. The families just wanted her to see for herself that the school is on reservation land and within the same community as Window Rock so she might change her mind about sending the demand letters and terminations for their ESAs, but she refused.”
– Marty Begay, Tribal Education Advocate for the American Federation for Children.
-In early April, the Navajo families received a “disallowed spending” notification from the Ariz. Department of Education (ADE).
-April 11th, AFC reached out to ADE to solve this internally after this was first brought to our attention hoping to find a reasonable solution to do what was right for the Navajo families and children. We received the same responses, similar to what the parents received when they tried to talk this through with the department.
-Upon receiving no reasonable solution from ADE, leaders in the Legislature including the Education Chairs contacted ADE and they were told to tell the families to go through the appeals process. That was incredibly intimidating to the families and they lost hope in a resolution being reached through ADE.
-April 25th, Hoffman had staff send a response email denying a meeting with several of the Navajo families even though Hoffman was touring a school in Window Rock. At that point it became very clear that she was not looking to resolve the situation in a way that would work for the parents.
– May 6th, the Goldwater Institute sent a formal letter stating that legally the families have a right to stay there. They are still waiting for a response. Additionally, May 21st, the Liberty Justice Center sent a letter to Hoffman stating it is illegal to demand repayment of these education funds.
-May 9th, AFC interviews families on camera and shows the placement of the school, less than a mile into New Mexico. This video was made solely due to the lack of reasonable response from the ADE to address the Navajo’s parents’ plight.
-May 17th, AFC releases the video to the public. Gov. Doug Ducey and several legislators, who were unaware of the crisis situation, vowed to take immediate action.
-May 19th, Save Our Schools defends Hoffman’s actions and calls this a “manufactured crisis” despite the pleas from the families themselves asking for help.
-May 20th, Hoffman finally emerges and changes course from her previous position by no longer demanding back payment or the families to go through an appeals process. However, Hoffman supports only giving the families a one-year transition time in the program and then they can no longer use their ESAs at their school. This is a temporary fix as it only allows the families one more year at the quality school of their choice.
-May 22nd, the Arizona State Legislature works on language of the bill to address this crisis.
Response to public attacks in the media:
Hoffman and Save Our Schools are falsely and slanderously accusing AFC of exploiting Navajo children for a political gain. The reality is, contrary to Hoffman’s belief that we should have notified legislators before making the video, no legislators from either political party were made aware that a video was being produced. Rather than notifying legislators, we tried repeatedly to work with Superintendent Hoffman many different ways as she was the one person who initiated this and was the one person who could have solved all of this internally without the media or legislators getting involved.