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Federal Officials See a 'Ray of Hope' for Indian Education

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San Diego--Federal Education and Interior department officials warned Indian educators meeting here last week that plans to reform Indian education must be implemented soon while policymakers' interest in the topic remains high.

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Indian Education Association, officials of both departments argued that the Bush Administration has successfully focused attention and resources on improving educational opportunities for Indian children.

"There is a ray of hope in Indian country," said John W. Tippeconnic 3rd, who recently was appointed to head the Education Department's office of Indian education. Mr. Tippeconnic cited the formation of the department's Indian Nations at Risk task force, which Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos announced last year at the NIEA conference, as a major step toward achieving educational equity for Indians.

Research already conducted by the task force, which has held a series of meetings and regional hearings nationwide, is "valuable, it's rich, and it has the potential to make a difference," Mr. Tippeconnic said.

He also said Mr. Bush's decision to appoint a permanent head of the Indian-education office after years of interim directorship signified the President's commitment to change.

The conference here also marked a significant turning point for the task force, which is expected to make public its reports in the spring. Task-force members were expected late last week to begin drafting the policy statements that will form the backbone of the document.

Cultural Barriers Remain

Much of the testimony at the task-force hearings here indicated that significant efforts are being made at the state and particularly at the local level. However, significant cultural barriers to the improvement of Indian-education programs appear to remain.

Many speakers argued, for example, that in the area of teacher training--which Mr. Tippeconnic has said is a priority for his office--racism and cultural insensitivity combine to discourage Indians from pursuing teaching careers.

One speaker, who identified himself as an education major at the University of Minnesota's Duluth campus, noted that a required "cultural diversity" course for students in the school of education fails to make them more sensitive to Indian concerns.

The course, he said, focuses heavily on discrimination against homosexuals, and on the civil-rights demonstrations of the 1960s. "But when it got to Native Americans," he said, "the only issue they wanted to discuss was alcoholism."

Janine Pease-Windy Boy, a task-force member who coordinated the hearings on teacher preparation, said teaching-training issues are expected to be "a predominant theme" in the task force report.

Interior Dept. Efforts

Officials at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, meanwhile, cited a proposal by Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. to create a separate bureau of Indian education within the department, as well as a series of education "mini-summits" held throughout the West earlier this year, as symbolic of their efforts to improve the reputation of the troubled agency.

They also said the proposal to consolidate the education functions of the bureau has been put before the nations' tribal leaders in a series of consultation sessions held by Mr. Lujan.

The initiative would "raise BIA education out of the bowels of the education office in which it now exists," said Eddie M. Brown, assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

Ed Parisian, who oversees elementary and secondary education programs for BIA, said a revamped system would help reduce bureaucratic gridlock within the agency.

Mr. Parisian noted that because of the way the existing office is organized, a natural-gas leak at one BIA school went unrepaired for two weeks. "You've got people pointing the finger at each other," he said.

Mr. Brown, who has often spoken of the existence of a "window of opportunity" created by the Administration's interest in Indian affairs, cautioned that reforms must be enacted quickly. He noted that January will mark the midpoint of the Bush Administration's first term.

"Political timing is the key to success," he said. "But that window of opportunity is already closing."

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