Educators in Indian country reacted with disappointment, dismay and concern to Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as U.S. Secretary of Education. Despite her having no experience as an educator in any capacity, undisclosed tax returns and contributions to questionable charitable organizations, Vice President Mike Pence broke the tie vote on her confirmation in the Senate on February 7 and DeVos was sworn in a few hours later. Here’s what some Native educators had to say about the effect of her appointment on Indian education.
Cheryl Crazy Bull, Sicangu Lakota, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, told ICMN:
“American Indian college students depend on the public commitment to access to and affordability of higher education, as well as a commitment to learning for all in order to persist and graduate… Regrettably, this public commitment isn’t evident in the selection of Mrs. DeVos as Secretary of Education. School choice is only a good thing when that choice is equitable, culturally grounded, and rooted in our shared democratic and inclusive values. Without a clear understanding of Indian country and Indian education in the leadership at the U.S. Department of Education, our values of cultural integrity and sovereignty are threatened.”
Bill Blackwell Jr., Portage Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, serves as executive director of the American Indian Resource Center at Bemidji State University and on the Minnesota Indian Education Association board. He told ICMN:
“First and foremost, she’s an unqualified candidate. It’s concerning that someone who has basically contributed lots of money to political candidates can assume the top position for education in the entire country. It’s alarming. Also, she has a propensity for privatization of schools, but there just aren’t a lot of private schools in Indian country. She has shown she really isn’t going to be about students of color or about different languages within the schools. When you look at [her vision] of private schools, it’s just public schools on steroids. It eliminates a lot of things that our students do well in… If we’re not going to have Indian education taught in these schools, I don’t see how it’s going to benefit our youths.”
Blackwell also pointed out that as secretary, DeVos will control federal financial aid for college, which many American Indian and Alaska Native students depend on heavily.
Sarah Echohawk, Pawnee, is CEO of the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) told ICMN:
“I have some concerns because we’re not really sure what we can expect. I’ve heard [speculation] about whether it’s possible BIE education would be privatized. That’s troubling to Indian country as a whole if someone is threatening tribal sovereignty in terms of what we’re doing in our schools and with our kids. For so long the federal government used education as a means of assimilation, to strip us of our culture, of our rights, of our language. When we see threats to having control over the education of our children, that always makes us nervous. We certainly want to work with whatever administration is there and we’re certainly not here to burn bridges or to say we don’t want to work with them. But I am a little concerned.”
Ahniwake Rose, Cherokee, executive director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) told ICMN:
“Throughout NIEA’s nearly 50-year history, we have stayed committed to ensuring Native students receive an equitable education and the federal trust responsibility to Indian students is fulfilled… In the course of Mrs. DeVos’s confirmation hearings, and the Senate’s deliberation on her nomination, we stayed true to our nonpartisan roots and to NIEA’s mission to students but did make our concerns known. Mrs. DeVos’s confirmation does not change our steadfast commitment to tribal sovereignty and the federal trust responsibility or our commitment to work relentlessly, with anyone at any time, in support of Native students.
Yatibaey Evans, Ahtna Athabascan, is Alaska Native Education Director for the Fairibanks North Star Borough School District and president of NIEA. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, was one of two Republican senators who voted against DeVos’s confirmation. Evans said:
“I definitely look forward to working with Secretary DeVos and her team and I’m remaining optimistic. Ultimately, I know that there is good in everyone and that’s what we have to look for. Building relationships and explaining both our concerns and hearing her and her team’s desires is a first step and I think that in the end we all have the same hope for our future and for our youth and want the best for everyone.
The Honorable Amber Kanazbah Crotty, a member of the Navajo Nation Council’s Health, Education, and Human Services Committee sent out a news release the same day DeVos was confirmed:
“Secretary DeVos was and continues to be the most under-qualified person to hold that office. Thousands of Navajo students K-12 and beyond will be affected by the political ideology of a market-driven ‘school choice.’ Schools on the Navajo Nation are largely publically funded. Historically, private schools do not fare well in economically depressed areas, and the quality of education, curriculum, and instruction will suffer under DeVos if policy of market-driven schools are pursued… The emphasis on market-driven school choice places the market and profit before student outcomes. This is unacceptable.”