Idea of Board Overseeing Indian-Education Programs Assailed

By Peter West — January 29, 1992 4 min read

WASHINGTON--Establishing an independent national board to oversee federal Indian education programs would stifle local control of schools and only add another layer of bureaucracy to an ineffective and top-heavy system, delegates to the White House Conference on Indian Education agreed last week.

Meeting here in one of a series of work sessions at this unprecedented national meeting, delegates from several states discussing issues of governance in Indian education flatly rejected the concept of a national Board of Indian Education.

In preliminary discussions, critics cited the difficulty of reconciling the needs of hundreds of Indian tribes in one national body and the potential harm such a body could do to the growing national movement toward tribal self-determination.

“Any authority should belong to the tribe,” said Randy Plume, a Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “No national authority should take that from us.”

Anita Bradley-Pfieffer, the executive director of the Navajo Division of Education, noted that larger tribes such as her own are more interested in establishing tribal education departments that can sot culturally relevant accreditation standards for Indian schools.

Many also argued that support for a national body would be minimal in Indian country because of previous “betrayals” by federal officials. “We don’t trust the government because of past history,” said Dolores R. Twohatchet, a delegate from Oklahoma. “It’s the same old song, second verse.”

A ‘Monumental Task’

The White House conference, jointly coordinated by the Education and Interior departments, is the culmination of several years of planning and meetings held in more than 20 states to devise an “action agenda” for Indian educators.

The four-day conference, called for in the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act, was designed to allow delegates to discuss a wide range of programs to make education “more relevant to the needs of Indians.” The act also specifically called for the gathering to consider the idea of a national beard.

The meeting, which began early last week, was expected to culminate in the adoption of a series of resolutions designed to provide guidance to federal, state, and local officials on how to tackle such issues as infusing Indian language and culture into education, delivering educational and other services to Indian students, improving literacy and high-school graduation rates, ensuring readiness for school, and providing safe and drug- and alcohol-flee schools.

And while confidence in their ability to control the future of their educational systems ran high among many delegates, most seemed to share the sentiments of Ross O. Swimmer, the chairman of the conference advisory committee, who warned that meeting the national education goals outlined by the President and the nation’s governors by the year 2000 is likely to be an impossible task for many Indian communities.

He noted that many young Indians already are afflicted with such disorders as fetal alcohol syndrome or are plagued by poverty.

But, he added, although Indians face a “monumental task” in coping with such difficulties, the conference provided an unparalled forum for agenda-setting.

“if we fail this week, you will be failing the next generation and the next generation to come after that,” he said.

Indians and the National Goals

President Bush did not attend the conference, but in a letter to the participants, he asserted that while communities nationwide are “recognizing that improving the quality and the accessibility of education can go a long way toward solving the problems that our society faces today ... this is particularly true in the Native American community.”

Some delegates, however, were distressed that, despite the appearance of high-level officials from both the Interior and Education departments, Mr. Bush and officials of other federal agencies shunned the meeting.

“Enormous amounts of money were spent by tribes to come all the way to Washington, D.C. at the invitation of the President and he’s not even here,” said Vernon Masayesva, a Hopi from Arizona. “Where are the people from the Energy Department and all of those organizations that have money that could help our schools?”

Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan Jr. called on the tribes to work together to advance the gains in academic achievement that Indian students have recently made by adapting national reform efforts to their unique needs.

He noted, for example, that academic achievement among Native students, as measured by the California Achievement Test, has risen by 10 percent from 1986 to 1990.

“Academic achievement is not solely the concern of the federal government,” he said. “it is a shared responsibility.”

Yet, said Nora Garcia, the conference co-chairman, the federal government should not be allowed to turn its back on historical obligations to tribes.

“We need to have the ‘education President’ made aware of the needs of Indian people,” she said to applause.

Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander praised the efforts of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, which is undertaking a reform program based on the President’s America 2000 program.

“You have, rightly, put your stamp” on the educational goals, he told the delegates.

A version of this article appeared in the January 29, 1992 edition of Education Week as Idea of Board Overseeing Indian-Education Programs Assailed