Public Charter Schools Growing on Native American Reservations

Charter schools filling the void left by Congressional moratorium on new BIE schools


WASHINGTON, D.C. — New data from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows that public charter schools are growing on Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) lands across the country. Between 2005 and 2010, the number of public charter schools on reservations increased from 19 to 31, accounting for 15 percent of all public schools on reservations.


Public charter schools are on reservations located in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Wyoming. Most Native American charter schools – 61 percent – are on reservations geographically located in Arizona and California. Between the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 school years, there was a 100 percent increase in the number of public charter schools and charter school enrollment on Native lands geographically located in California.


In 1995, Congress put in place a temporary moratorium on new educational programs funded by the BIA, which has yet to be lifted. The moratorium prohibits the opening of new Bureau of Indian Education (BIE)-operated schools or the expansion of grade levels offered in existing BIE-operated schools. Public charter schools, which are operated independently from the Bureau of Indian Education, therefore provide options for Native Americans to open and expand their own schools on their own lands.


A variety of state or tribal agencies have approved charter school applications. Bay Mills Community College, a community college in Michigan controlled by the Bay Mills Indian Community, authorized its first two public charter schools in 2001 and now authorizes 44 charter schools. One of the charter schools, Ojibwe Charter School, is located on BIA lands and serves a majority Native American population. The other charter schools are located in 27 non-reservation cities throughout the state and enroll largely African-American students, consistent with the college’s mission to serve students who are urban, minority and/or poor.


In 2012, the Cherokee Nation became the first Native American tribe to authorize a charter school. The tribe is the authorizer of the Tsunadeloquasdi Immersion School in Oklahoma, which in 2011 served 112 pre-kindergarten through 8th grade students.


“The growth in charter schools and student enrollment on Native American reservations shows that charter schools are increasingly providing Native communities with a viable schooling option to meet their educational needs,” says Anna Nicotera, the senior director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. “Charter schools also allow Native people the freedom to tailor education as they see fit, including integrating language and culture into educational experiences, and refocusing on specific learning needs of Native students.”


Over the past several decades Native American students have had some of the worst student outcomes compared to other student populations in U.S. schools. Less than 60 percent of students graduate from Bureau of Indian Education schools and roughly 20 percent meet proficient or advanced academic standards in mathematics and reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.


Public charter schools are aiming to improve student learning and some schools are beginning to succeed. The National Charter School Resource Center recently published a case study of the Akimel O’Otham Pee Posh Charter School, a public charter school created to expand the grade levels available on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona. Harvard University released a report that outlines the attributes and practices of three successful charter schools serving native youth.


“Some of the initial academic results coming out of public charter schools on reservations are encouraging. But we need more data on a variety of measures to determine how well charter schools are serving Native American students,” said Nicotera.


Charter schools are independent public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for improved student achievement. Charter schools are public schools that do not have special entrance requirements or charge tuition.


About the National Alliance


The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools is the leading national nonprofit organization committed to advancing the public charter school movement. Our mission is to lead public education to unprecedented levels of academic achievement by fostering a strong charter sector. For more information, please visit our website at