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Spending Bill Would Kill E.D.'s Indian-Ed. Programs

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Washington

Education Department programs for American Indian students would be eliminated under a spending plan approved by House appropriators.

The move comes just weeks after Ed Simermeyer took over as the director of the office that runs those programs, a post that had been vacant since 1992.

"We're being forced to articulate what we're all about, but I'm confident we can do that," Mr. Simermeyer said in an interview.

The proposed abolition is part of a $12 billion fiscal 1996 spending bill drafted by the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the Interior Department and related programs, including the Education Department's Indian-education efforts. The bill was approved June 27 by the full Appropriations Committee and will likely go to the House floor this week.

The bill would cut all funding for operation of the Education Department's office of Indian education and for the programs it runs. The Clinton Administration requested $84.8 million for those programs in fiscal 1996, which begins Oct. 1.

The programs provide grants to states and about 1,200 districts in an effort to help educate the approximately 400,000 American Indian and Alaska-Native students who attend public schools in those districts, many of which are located on or near reservations.

The largest of these initiatives is a formula-grant program for public schools in districts that serve at least 10 Indian children. The funds help provide cultural and educational services, such as tutoring.

Duplication of Effort?

While funding for the office and its programs would cease under the Interior bill, the law authorizing them would stay on the books and the programs could be funded in the future, a G.O.P. aide said.

But "effectively you don't exist if you don't have money," said the aide, Barbara Wainman, the press secretary for Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, the chairman of the Interior subcommittee.

Pressure to cut costs forced that panel to shave $1.4 billion from current spending levels for the programs in its jurisdiction.

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley said in a statement that proposing to scrap the education programs "is a cruel action that will harm American-Indian and Alaska-Native children."

Critics say the Education Department programs duplicate others in the Interior Department's Bureau of Indian Affairs.

But the main B.I.A. program that serves public schools, the Johnson-O'Malley Act, serves just 272,000 children and can also give money to states, tribes, and nontribal Indian organizations. And unlike the Education Department's primary Indian-education program, the Interior program serves only children who are members of a federally recognized tribe.

Moreover, pending B.I.A. restructuring plans would give tribes greater spending authority, a move that educators fear would result in diversion of money from schools to uses such as road projects.

"There's just no guarantee that students will ever see that money," said John W. Cheek, the acting executive director of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.

House appropriators want to fully finance the Administration's $22.8 million request for the Johnson-O'Malley Act, but that would amount to $1.6 million less than was spent in the current fiscal year. Funding for the 187 schools managed by the B.I.A. would rise to $436 million from the fiscal 1995 level of $407 million under the House bill.

At both the subcommittee and committee levels, lawmakers rejected attempts by Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the ranking minority member on the Appropriations Committee, to restore some of the Indian-education office's funding.

Education Department officials say they will press the Senate to save the programs.

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