Tribal leaders and Indian educators concerned about Donald Trump's new Cabinet member

A protest against Secretary of Education nominee Betsy DeVos and against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Photo: Joe Piette

A billionaire with no experience in public education will have major sway over Indian youth as part of the new Trump administration.

Betsy DeVos, a Michigan resident whose family has donated millions of dollars to Republican interests, was confirmed as Secretary of Education on Monday. Due to unanimous opposition from Democrats and two Republicans, Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a historic tie-breaking vote in order for her to join the President Donald Trump's Cabinet.

"The President believes strongly that our nation’s success depends on the education of our students and Betsy DeVos has devoted nearly three decades of her time and talent to promoting educational opportunity," press secretary Sean Spicer said at the White House after the vote. "As Secretary, she will ensure that every student has access to a good school, whether it’s public, private, parochial, charter, or any other kind."

Unlike nearly every other prior Secretary of Education, DeVos has never been a teacher or school administrator and has never worked in government. But that hasn't stopped her from trying to steer public funds to private educational institutions through vouchers, charter schools and similar initiatives.

That background has tribal leaders and Indian educators raising alarms. The overwhelming majority of American Indian and Alaska Native students attend public schools on and near reservations and a loss or redirection of federal funds could negatively impact their ability to learn.

"Secretary DeVos was and continues to be the most under-qualified person to hold that office,' said Amber Kanazbah Crotty, who serves on the Navajo Nation Council. "Thousands of Navajo students K-12 and beyond will be affected by the political ideology of a market-driven 'school choice.'"

During her confirmation hearing last month, DeVos did not mention Indian education or Indian students at all. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyoming) gave her an opening to talk about tribal youth when he mentioned the Wind River Reservation in his state but instead she mentioned a rural school that had to build a fence to protect it from grizzly bears.

The lack of clarity prompted the the National Indian Education Association to express concerns after the January 17 hearing. The largest organization of tribal educators and administrators said DeVos should have been called back to answer questions about the first Americans.

"DeVos did not address the critical duty the Secretary of Education has to Native students in her first hearing and her responses did not allay our concerns that she may prioritize federal funding for private schools over tribal sovereignty," NIEA said in a statement.

With her seat at the Department of Education, DeVos will have authority over the Office of Indian Education. The office is charged with carrying out key provisions of the Every Student Succeeds Act that affect Native languages, tribal consultation and tribal-state partnerships.

The department also oversees Impact Aid, the federal program that directs funding to public schools on and near reservations. Tribes have been calling for more resources for the program in order to help their youth succeed.

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