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Excerpted From: Jordan Ramharter, A Meeting of the Minds: Utilizing Maine's State Education System to Promote the Success of its Native Students While Maintaining Tribal Sovereignty, 72 Maine Law Review 379 (2020) (Comment) (367 Footnotes) (Full Document)

JordanRamharter“Many see education as the key to success for children of all backgrounds. However, deeply entrenched inequities can obstruct future opportunities and successes ....” In 2015, the Education Trust reported that although educational progress was identified among the majority of American students throughout the past decade, there was one group of students that stood apart from the rest. “Unlike achievement results for every other major ethnic group in the United States, those for Native students ... remained nearly flat in recent years, and the gaps separating those students from their white peers have actually widened.”

Research suggests that the majority of Native American students are not proficient in reading or math by eighth grade. Additionally, Native students consistently have the lowest high school graduation rates in the country and their average ACT scores, which are substantially lower than their white peers', have continued to decline over the past decade as well. Lastly, compared to any other racial or ethnic group, high-level high school courses are often less accessible to Native students, putting them at a disadvantage for college admissions.

Although educational opportunities are provided by both public schools and federally-funded tribal schools, many Native American students fall behind their white peers prior to entering high school. In fact, data suggest that between twenty and twenty-eight percent of Native students do not graduate from high school. Overall, even though data is limited, the evidence is clear that a “striking disparit[y] of educational achievement and attainment levels” exists between Native Americans and their white counterparts.

Ultimately, the federal government is failing to provide its Native American students with access to equal educational opportunities. Although the concept of “tribal sovereignty” in the United States is understood to provide indigenous tribes with the right to self-govern within the nation's borders, there still exists a “trust relationship” between the sovereign nations and the federal government. The relationship between the United States and the Native American tribes is defined by the federal government as “domestic dependent nations,” thus emphasizing that tribal “sovereignty has diminished but never extinguished.”

Considering this relationship, the federal government has long recognized not only a right, but a duty to utilize necessary legislative and executive authority in order to support the Nation's tribes. Encompassed in this duty is the responsibility to ensure that Native American children are provided the same educational opportunities as any other racial or ethnic group. However, the federal government continues to struggle to fulfill this duty due to an uncertainty about how to effectively craft legislation that promotes Native American students' success both in and out of the classroom.

The federal government began to implement plans to promote the education of the Native American tribes starting in 1934. One of the initial plans, still actively in place today, was establishing federally-funded tribal schools that would serve to “meet the cultural and educational needs of Indigenous children.”

More recently, in 2001 the No Child Left Behind Act, established by former President George W. Bush and his administration, required states to develop year-long academic goals to ensure that all students succeed and make progress in closing the achievement gap. The Act incorporated educational programs for Native American students, stating:

It is the policy of the United States to fulfill the Federal Government's unique and continuing trust relationship with and responsibility to the Indian people for the education of Indian children and for the operation and financial support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded school system to work in full cooperation with tribes toward the goal of ensuring that the programs of the Bureau of Indian Affairs-funded school system are of the highest quality and provide for the basic elementary and secondary educational needs of Indian children, including meeting the unique educational and cultural needs of those children.

Thus, the federal government, along with the state and local governments, owe a duty to ensure that access to equal educational opportunities are provided to Native students; a duty that they are failing to successfully perform. Currently, the federal government is prioritizing preserving what little is left of tribal sovereignty, which is consequently costing Native American students their ability to access equal educational opportunities and inevitably stunting student achievement.

In Part I of this Comment, I frame the basic right to equal educational opportunity established under the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.

In Part II, I assess the ever-growing nationwide student achievement gap-a gap caused by disparities in opportunities available to children of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds.

In Part III, I analyze both federal and state legislation that serves to promote and improve the basic educational programs offered by state and local governments.

In Part IV and Part V, I explore the relationship between Native American tribes and education, with Part V focusing specifically on Maine's Native American students. Throughout these two Parts, I argue that Native American students are being deprived of their right to access equal educational opportunities in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Lastly, Part VI describes potential policy solutions that the State of Maine could utilize and implement in order to improve achievement results for its Native students.

[. . .]

Whether considering Native American's academic success generally or focusing in on the success of Maine's Wabanaki Indian population specifically, it is clear that the United States' current education system is failing to provide American Indians with equal access to education and learning opportunities. This nationwide academic crisis for American Indians will soon be identified as one that states can no longer ignore.

The statistical discrepancies between Native American students and their non-Native peers is identifiable early on in their academic careers and becomes even more vividly apparent as they transition from primary school to secondary school. As a result, this leads to significantly fewer Native American students considering the idea of attending college in comparison to their non-Native peers. Because of the small percentage of Native Americans that attain undergraduate and graduate degrees, Native American children struggle to find similarities between their teachers, their politicians, their doctors and themselves; a phenomenon that has been identified as a key component in students' academic success.

It is evident that schools in Maine are failing Native American students. Although generally viewed positively by the Wabanaki community due to the emphasis placed on cultural learning, BIE schools are leaving students unprepared and unable to compete academically. Therefore, the federal and state governments, which assumed a responsibility to ensure the educational success of Native American students by way of the trust relationship, must make significant changes to improve the academic achievement of Maine's Wabanaki community.

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