Tribal Casino Funds School Choice Scholarships

Published March 1, 1999

With a judicious mix of educational incentives and penalties, the tribal council of New Mexico’s Sandia Pueblo has succeeded in reducing the dropout rate of its high school students to zero, thereby ensuring that all pueblo children graduate from high school and get a shot at going to college.

While scholarships for a variety of K-12 schools and colleges provide strong incentives for parents to encourage their children to get a good education, dropouts face a stern penalty: parent and child alike could end up in jail.

Although achieving a zero dropout rate is a distinction in itself, it’s an even more remarkable achievement in light of the low high school graduation rate of Native Americans in general. According to U.S. Department of Education figures, Native Americans have the highest dropout rate of any ethnic racial group (16.9 percent in August 1994) and the lowest high school graduation rate (61.3 percent in 1992). Of those who do attend college, more than half drop out in the first year, and only 3 percent finish their degrees.

Zero tolerance for high school dropouts became the law in Sandia Pueblo in 1994 when the 18-member tribal council unanimously approved a resolution requiring students to finish high school, get their General Educational Development (GED) certificate, or appear with their parents before the council. Students weren’t forced to attend public schools but could use tribal scholarships, funded with casino revenues, to attend private or parochial schools, including college preparatory academies.

“We will have no dropouts,” Sandia Governor Alex Lujan told Albuquerque Journal reporter Andrea Schoellkopf. “If an individual does not comply, then parent and student will have to go before the tribal council and explain why they haven’t been going to school. It puts the responsibility back to parents,” he added.

Karen Montoya and her mother found out the hard way that the tribal council was quite serious about its dropout policy. In 1996, 17-year-old Montoya had quit school without earning her GED, a decision that a year later landed the teenager and her mother in the Sandoval County jail on contempt-of-court charges for not complying with the law. To get out of jail, Montoya had to agree to complete the GED exam.

Most dropouts return to complete their GEDs willingly, in part because of a full-tuition college scholarship program that the 481-member tribe started in the 1980s, using bingo revenues. Today, the tribe’s gambling casino funds an education budget of $500,000 a year. Although more than 70 percent of the tribe’s 139 students attend public schools, the school choice scholarships have helped double the number of pueblo children in private schools over the past two years, from 18 to 38.

According to Lujan, one effect of the scholarships has been to spur parents to push their children harder so that they can get into private schools. Hoping to ensure the scholarships are available in the future and aware that gambling revenues aren’t guaranteed for the long-term, Lujan and other tribal leaders want to create an education trust whose earnings would fund scholarships permanently. Their overall aim is to develop independent adults who can provide for their families themselves rather than relying on handouts from the state or federal government.

“I think the parents feel good about getting education for their kids,” Lujan told Schoellkopf. “What we’re hoping will happen is we attract them back to the Pueblo of Sandia so they can work for the tribe and be the future of the community,” he added.

For more information …

A summary and chapter 1 of the U.S. Department of Education’s 1995 report on dropout rates in the United States are available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old documents #2178302 (introduction, 5 pp.) and #2178404 (chapter 1, 17 pp.)