Guest Editorial: How Seven Navajo Kids Upset the Politics & Narratives Around School Choice

By Recker McDowell —

Those opposed to ‘school choice’ try to frame the issue around Betsy DeVos or the Koch Brothers trying to benefit private and charter schools at the expense of public schools and public school teachers.

The term ‘school choice’ itself is a rallying cry for progressives, #Red4Ed activists and the media pushing for better teacher pay and increased public school funding.

That narrative is not as easy or convenient when the school choice issue involves Navajo kids using Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts.

The ESAs allow Native Americans as well as active-duty military families, foster kids and kids with disabilities to use state funds to pay for private schools.

Both sides of the school choice issue in Arizona are wrestling with seven Navajo Nation kids who have used ESAs to attend a Christian school just across the Arizona-New Mexico line. The Arizona Department of Education was going to deny the Navajo’s ESA applications because the school was in New Mexico. The sovereign Navajo Nation cuts across state lines and the Navajos were there long before Arizona and New Mexico were states.

A school choice group called the American Federation for Children highlighted the situation prompting a bill at the Arizona Legislature this session to hold the Navajo families harmless for current tuition at the Hilltop Christian School.

A YouTube video from the AFC group on the Navajos ESA situation brought the issue to the forefront.

That measure itself has been cast as a slippery slope to allow ESAs to be used out-of-state even though the Hilltop focused bill is just for within two miles of the state border.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman, a Democrat who won a surprising victory in 2018, accused the AFC group of trying to use the Navajo situation as another slippery slope to expand school choice after voters denied an expansion last year.

“This legislation also respects the will of Arizona voters who soundly rejected an expansion of the ESA program last year,” Hoffman said of the legislation.

Hoffman is right Arizona voters did reject an expansion ESAs.

But they did not reject the existing and original ESA programs which offers educational options and financial aid for Native Americans and military families, foster kids and kids with disabilities.

Those kids aren’t as easy to put in the same political school choice box.