Washington--Setting in motion the most comprehensive examination of Native American schooling in more than 20 years, members of an Education Department task force began last week the “monumental task” of determining how to restructure America’s educational system to meet the needs of Indian children.
After swearing in members of the Indian Nations at Risk Task Force, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos charged the 15-member panel with completing its yearlong study within the context of the six national goals for education hammered out by President Bush and the nation’s governors.
“Let the goals guide your thinking,” said Secretary Cavazos, who has envisioned the group’s final report as a document comparable in impact to the 1983 commission report A Nation At Risk.
William G. Demmert Jr., the Alaska commissioner of education and a co-chairman of the task force, described the panel’s goal as a “short, well-thought-out, and highly charged report that everyone will read.”
During their three-day meeting here, the task-force members agreed on an agenda that will include site visits to Indian lands and schools, an extensive review of existing literature, and a series of regional hearings.
Mr. Cavazos told panel members that their mission was an essential component of the coordinated effort by the Education Department and the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs to improve educational opportunities for American Indians and Alaska Natives.
He said the panel’s findings also could serve as a framework for discussions at a White House conference on Indian education, which President Bush is expected to convene by September 1991.
Many of the Native American leaders on the panel stressed that education--and the economic security it fosters--is essential to ensuring a future for Indian society.
Joseph H. Ely, tribal chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Nevada, said that his personal goal as a task-force member is “to ensure the survival of Indian people.”
“Education,” he said, “is really going to be the focal point of our survival.”
While the task force will concentrate on developing strategies to aid Native American students in meeting the President’s education goals, it will also work within a set of “guiding principles” adopted at the meeting.
The principles focus heavily on the nation’s responsibility to “preserve and protect” native cultures.
“Government and other institutions of the dominant culture must change historical practices and relationships that have failed to enable American Indians [and] Alaska Na8tive communities to sustain native cultures,” the statement of principles maintains.
It also emphasizes that schools must cooperate with Native American parents and leaders to “affirm and restore the cultural heritage of indigenous peoples, through the teaching of native cultures and languages.”
While the task force is charged with determining what factors keep Indian students from achieving academic success, several members argued that the report should not focus exclusively on the negative aspects of their schooling.
“We need to very carefully balance the problems with the successes and with the movement toward those successes,” Mr. Demmert said.
Members agreed that, because of the diversity that exists in the Native American community, recommendations should avoid narrow specifics. They also agreed, however, that strategies beyond those offered in current school-restructuring plans will be needed to meet the complex set of factors in play in the wide mix of educational settings serving Indian students.
Even before the task force could begin its deliberations, disagreements flared over funding.
Jo Jo Hunt, executive director of the National Advisory Council on Indian Education, challenged the Education Department’s decision to transfer $250,000 from the salaries and expenses account of the office of Indian education to fund the task force.
She argued that the money, which was originally slated for staff positions that have been left vacant, could have been better used to support education directly in the form of grants to Indian programs.
Alan Ginsburg, the task force’s executive director, said in an interview that the department’s budget office upheld the decision to use the funds on the task force’s work. He said money for salaries could not have been reprogrammed for grants.
Mr. Ginsburg also said that $150,000 from the department’s Chapter 1 budget and as much as $50,000 in drug-education money would be used to fund the task force.
Money also may be transferred from bilingual education and other areas if the task force determines that it needs to examine those issues in the context of Indian education, he added.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 1990 edition of Education Week as Indian Panel Urged To Frame Report in Context of Goals