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Lujan: Education a Top Priority In Plan to Improve Reservations

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Washington--Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. has told a Congressional panel investigating corruption in Indian affairs that education has top priority in his efforts to improve life on reservations.

But, Interior Department officials conceded last week, no written policy yet exists to put that contention into practice.

Mr. Lujan told the special committee on investigations of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs this month that education "is the number-one priority of the department as far as Indian Country is concerned."

Mr. Lujan was among the last witnesses to testify before the three-member panel, which for the past 17 months has investigated allegations of theft, fraud, mismanagement, and the sexual abuse of children on reservations.

The investigative committee plans this fall to issue a report outlining problems on the reservations, as well as policy recommendations and proposed legislation to combat those problems.

Although hearings have been held on charges of sexual abuse by teachers at b.i.a. schools, educational issues have not been a major focus of the committee's investigation, according to Sam Hirsch, a spokesman for the panel.

Mr. Lujan told the committee that background checks and regulations governing the hiring of bia teachers have been strengthened since allegations surfaced that child abuse had been ignored for years at some reservation schools. (See Education Week, March 1, 1989.)

He added that school improvement is a prime goal "because a lot of the problems that we have on reservations really can be re4medied by education."

Interior Department spokesmen said, however, that "there is nothing on paper" stating specifically how Mr. Lujan proposes to improve conditions for students at the 111 schools the b.i.a. operates on reservations and the 70 schools run by Native Americans under contract to the agency.

Such policies "probably will be fleshed out more" after the Senate approves the appointment of Eddie Frank Brown as assistant secretary for Indian affairs, according to Robert Walker, a department spokesman.

Mr. Brown, a Tohono O'Odham Yaqui Indian and a former b.i.a. division chief, was nominated for the post in April but has yet to be confirmed. A hearing on Mr. Brown's appointment is expected to be held later this month, Mr. Walker said.

In the meantime, Mr. Lujan's "thrust has been to bring some better coordination between our people and the Education Department," Mr. Walker explained.

Senator Thomas A. Daschle, Democrat of South Dakota, suggested to Mr. Lujan at the hearing that an oversight committee be established in the White House to foster interagency cooperation in all of the department's endeavors on Indian issues.

But Mr. Lujan rejected the suggestion, citing a tour of "innovative'' Indian schools in Arizona, California, and New Mexico that he took with Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos this spring as evidence that he is already undertaking new cooperative initiatives to improve reservation conditions.--pw

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