What Is Tribal Compacting of Education?

Joel Isaak, State-Tribal Education Compacting Project Coordinator, Alaska Department of Education and Early Development

The conversation around State Tribal Education Compacting has been ongoing for decades in Alaska.  At its core Compacting is simple, a government-to-government agreement.  However, Compacting provides for a dynamic way to work in partnership to realize shared educational goals and student outcomes.  While many students do find success through our current education system, far too many do not.  Recently the need for State Tribal Education Compacting was brought to light through Alaska’s Education Challenge.  Following Alaska’s Education Challenge, the Alaska State Board of Education adopted the priority to create the option for self-governance compacting for the delivery of education between the State of Alaska and Tribes or tribally-empowered Alaska Native organizations.  Creating the option for State Tribal Education Compacting recognizes that there is a need to address systemic change in a manner that allows Alaska’s hard-working educators and students to achieve success. 

What is a compact?  Tribal compacting is a government-to-government agreement.  In this case, the agreement would be between the State of Alaska and one or more Tribal governments.  Through a negotiation process, the parties would agree to the compact’s fiscal terms and service agreement terms.

Why should we pursue tribal compacting in education?  Addressing Tribal and community engagement and ownership of education is an excellent way to close the achievement gap by ensuring equitable educational rigor and resources for all students.  Student feedback and data are clear that when students have a sense of belonging and connection to their education environment they do better in school.  The best way for ensuring culturally relevant and accurate teaching is to have Tribes lead this type of education in schools that it operates.  Empowering Tribes to build this type of educational ownership benefits non-Tribal schools as well.

Would Tribes be required to enter into education compacts?  No. This would create the option for Tribes to enter into a compact agreement, but not force them to do so.

Are STECPS for native only schools?  State Tribal Education Compact Pilot Schools (STECPS) will be public schools open to all students, following the requirements laid out in the State of Alaska’s constitution, and following nondiscrimination laws.

Why a pilot demonstration project?  Education compacting is new to Alaska’s K-12 system.  Washington State currently has all of its Tribes compacting through State Tribal Education Compacts.  We see the value of learning from their experience, as Washington started out with a pilot project that allowed Tribes to enter into compacting at their own pace as each Tribe became ready.  A smaller targeted pilot allows the needed flexibility to adjust in real time and to create success.  This allows for a broader more permanent compacting structure to be established based on the results of the pilot demonstration project.  It lowers the potential risk and leads to greater success.

What kind of change will there be?  A pilot demonstration project allows for Tribes to choose to engage or not to engage.  If we look at the number of Tribes in Alaska who compact for Indian Health Service or Child Welfare Services we see that not all Tribes choose to compact.  And when Indian Health Service compacting was first piloted there were only a handful of Tribes that started compacting in the first few years of that compact.  Although there are 229 federally recognized Tribes in Alaska, not all may want to compact and the number of Tribes that choose to enter into a pilot demonstration project may be few.

How does this affect districts?  STECPS will compact directly with the State of Alaska and will function much like a district does.  Current school districts already work with each other and have networks of support at a district-to-district level.  STECPS will simply add another partner to the educational table. 

What kind of governance structures will there be?  Running a school does require governance and reporting structures.  These structures might look slightly different in each STECPS, but will look very familiar and include: a type of oversight, policy governing body, and chief school operating officer.  The need for leadership does not disappear in a STECPS, it just might look a little different as each Tribal community has slightly different cultures, leadership, governance, and consensus making customs.

What about Federal Trust Responsibility?  The federal government does have a trust responsibility to provide for Alaska Native/American Indian education.  A STECPS in no ways lessens or diminishes this federal obligation. 

How can we help prepare for compacting?  There are public processes that are in place that can be used to engage in this work.  The State Board of Education’s State Tribal Education Compact Committee meets monthly and these meetings are publicly noticed.  In addition, the State Board of Education holds quarterly meetings that provide for public comment opportunities.  There is the opportunity for legislative public engagement on this topic as well.  On February 24, 2022, there will be U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs field hearing on education compacting in Alaska.

With any new endeavor there is change and opportunity.  A State Tribal Education Compact Pilot is a critical step towards enacting the systemic change that is needed in Alaska.  It works within current legal structures to create significant new opportunity for meaningful improvement for all students in Alaska.  Compacting does not remove or eliminate the current education structure; it strengthens it by providing for another option for student success. Living in Alaska we know that to thrive here we must have strong partnerships.  State Tribal Education Compacting is a route to start a new type of education partnership that will serve all Alaskans well.

For more information visit: https://education.alaska.gov/compacting or reach out to joel.isaak@nullalaska.gov.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.