Proposed Indian-School Transfer Detailed

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WASHINGTON--Assistant Secretary of the Interior Ross O. Swimmer conceded last week that he had "created a great deal of unrest among many tribes'' with a proposal to transfer 112 Bureau of Indian Affairs schools to third-party contractors unless tribes assume their operation.

Testifying before the House subcommittee on elementary, secondary, and vocational education, Mr. Swimmer said the plan had been "mischaracterized grossly in the press and throughout Indian country.''

He insisted that, because the federal government would continue its financial commitment, the B.I.A. proposal "is not an attempt to 'back door' our way out of Indian education.''

Mr. Swimmer gave the panel the first detailed explanation of how the transfers would work since he unveiled the plan on Jan. 8 as part of the Interior Department's fiscal-1988 budget proposal. The B.I.A. is requesting $163 million for school operations in the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1, up from $154 million this year.

Under the plan's "two-year phase-in period,'' he said, the bureau would attempt to negotiate contracts with tribal governments to take over schools it now operates on their reservations, beginning in 1988-89 and no later than 1989-90.

"If the tribe, by default, says, 'We don't want to fool with that,''' Mr. Swimmer said, "I would seek out the best alternative ... the local educational agency or even a private school.'' Currently, 69 of the bureau's 181 schools are run under contracts with tribes.

"It's time to get tribal governments involved in education,'' the B.I.A. director said, because education is the key to reducing alcoholism, unemployment, and other social problems on Indian reservations. He argued that local control would improve the quality of education, because "the B.I.A. bureaucracy doesn't do a good job.''

In addition, off-reservation boarding schools may be turned over to state operation, he said, although not necessarily within two years. Perhaps the B.I.A. would continue to run dormitories, and states would run them as "specialty schools,'' concentrating on certain vocational skills, he added.

Mr. Swimmer received a polite hearing for his proposal, but little encouragement from subcommittee members, who questioned the need for a wholesale transfer of responsibility for Indian education.

Representative Dale Kildee, Democrat of Michigan, noted the excellent reputations of some B.I.A. schools, such as those on the eastern Navajo reservation. The bureau could use such models to improve education throughout its system, he suggested.

Representative Steve Gunderson, Republican of Wisconsin, questioned how the plan would "automatically enhance'' the quality of B.I.A. schools.

Mr. Swimmer responded that the B.I.A.'s high-quality schools are the exceptions--"where you've lucked out'' by attracting good administrators. Local control would mean "less bureaucratic interference, more freedom and flexibility,'' he argued.

Representative Bill Richardson, a New Mexico Democrat who claims to represent more Indians than any other Congressman, criticized Mr. Swimmer for citing in support of his school-transfer proposal a private foundation's study featuring what he called "reprehensible statements'' about Indians.

The report by the Edwin Gould Foundation for Children concluded that "parents on reservations are particularly incompetent'' and that "the reservation is virtually a community of alcoholics.''

Walter Geier, who wrote the report to describe his visits to Indian schools, told the subcommittee that he regretted his choice of words, and that the document was intended for the foundation's "internal use.'' But he declined to apologize.

"I don't feel that it's biased,'' he said. "It's a reflection of things that I heard.''

Mr. Swimmer said the Gould report had not influenced his proposal.

The bureau appears to have the legal authority to award contracts to run its schools, according to Kathleen Johnson, a staff member of the House appropriations subcommittee on the interior. But, she said, because the plan was part of the agency's budget proposal, it must pass muster with Congressional appropriations committees.

She said the House panel plans to vote on the idea when it considers an Interior Department appropriations bill, sometime after April 30.

The overwhelming unpopularity of Mr. Swimmer's plan was illustrated by the testimony of Indian educators and tribal leaders before that subcommittee last week.

Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, criticized what she called "an all-or-nothing proposal'' designed to "blackmail tribes into contracting'' by threatening to transfer the schools' control to the states.

Tribes are hesitant to take on new contracts, she said, in part because the B.I.A. is planning to impose a flat 15 percent fee for overhead in all its tribal contracts, replacing the current system of negotiating indirect costs. Also, Ms. Harjo said, many schools, "following years of B.I.A. neglect of maintenance and repair and little new contracting, are in very poor physical condition.''

"Tribes may understandably be reluctant to contract to run dilapidated facilties,'' she added, "especially when there is absolutely no assurance that [repair] funds will be available.''

The 40,000 children now in B.I.A. or tribal schools run under contract with the B.I.A. represent about 10 percent of all Indian students. Public schools enroll 83 percent, and private schools, 7 percent, according to the bureau.

Vol. 06, Issue 24

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