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Indian Groups Back New Legislation For Greater Tribal Control of Schools

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Washington--Representatives of American Indian schools and tribal groups strongly support proposed legislation that would require the Bureau of Indian Affairs to evaluate the needs of each student before deciding whether to close a bia-run school.

But officials from the bureau, testifying at a House hearing last week, argued that the proposed procedures would "greatly delay and otherwise hinder the department's ability to carry out its education responsibilities."

The hearing was convened by the Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education to consider HR 5190, the Indian education amendments of 1984. The bill, introduced by Representative Dale Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, would amend Title XI of the Education Amendments of 1978, under which Indian education programs are authorized.

"We see closure and consolidation as a responsibility of the executive branch in carrying out Congressional intent," said John Fritz, deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs in the Interior Department. Mr. Fritz added that the department views the current consultation process as adequate.

The Indian groups, in many cases, do not agree. This month, Ute tribal officials, with the support of 46 other tribes, were scheduled to file a motion seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the bia from closing the Intermountain Inter-Tribal School in Brigham City, Utah. (See Education Week, April 11, 1984.)

Currently, the bureau operates 75 elementary and secondary day schools, with an additional 51 schools run on a contractual basis by Indian groups, and eight off-reservation boarding schools, according to a bia spokesman. A total of 42,456 students are enrolled in these facilities, which received nearly $164 million during the fiscal year 1983.

Local Control

According to the tribal representatives who testified, many of the changes proposed in the bill would increase local control of Indian schools by giving tribal officials more responsibility for planning and more say in decisions to close schools.

One key change, supported by the tribes and the bia, would put the bia schools on a forward-funding basis. Now, Indian education and impact aid are the only federal education programs not budgeted on that basis. Under the pending legislation, school officials would know a year in advance what their budget would be.

Representatives from both the bia and the Indian schools agreed that the change would allow those running the schools to improve planning for both programs and staffing. One school representative pointed out that under the existing law, he is forced to tell teachers each spring that although he would like them to return the next fall, he is unable to guarantee them jobs.

But Mr. Fritz of the bia noted that although the bureau views the change to forward funding as "sensible," it is "not something we can do overnight."

The measure would also consolidate all responsibility for the bia schools within the office of Indian education. Currently, other bia offices are responsible for some programs--facilities maintenance, for example.

Mr. Kildee, who visited a number of the schools recently, expressed particular concern about the maintenance problem. "I saw some fine facilities, but I also saw some that a federal judge in my state would not let us keep prisoners in. Yet we were educating Indian children in them."

Other components of the bill, however, met with disfavor from both the Indian groups and the bia officials. Both groups criticized a proposal that would allow the contract schools to waive some academic standards set by the bureau--as they may now--but would require that they submit replacement standards to the Interior Secretary for approval.

Plan Opposed

The change "weakens the ability of tribes to take over the education of their children, as it allows tribes only the authority to propose standards that the Secretary may disapprove," according to testimony presented by officials of the Rock Point Community School in Chinle, Ariz. The result, school officials said, would be to place "tribes back under the paternalistic policies of the bureau."

The bia officials, however, opposed the plan to change the standards, viewing it as " ... possibly weakening the department's ability to use standards as management tools in enhancing education."

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