Perhaps no other single group of students has been as walloped by sequestration—the biggest cuts to federal education spending in history—as Native American children.
While the impact of the 5 percent across-the-board cuts has been almost invisible in many of the nation’s school districts, it’s hard to miss at schools that serve a high percentage of American Indian students, such as Loneman School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
The K-8 school laid off 12 staff members, about 20 percent of its workforce, before the current academic year began in August. Those cuts included three of six middle school teachers, says Principal Charles Cuny Jr.
And 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students, who would usually move from classroom to classroom and have more than one teacher, are staying in one room all day with the same teacher for all subjects.
“It’s hard for the older kids to be stuck in one classroom all day,” says Melissa Blacksmith, Loneman’s director of gifted and talented education. “They don’t like being like the younger students. We’ve told them that we had no choice. This is strictly a budget decision.”
Of 161 Indian-lands districts that receive federal Impact Aid, 144 cut spending for the 2013-14 school year, according to a survey by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. The most common reductions were in noninstructional staff, maintenance and new purchases, and teachers’ professional development.
SOURCE: National Association of Federally Impacted Schools
Overall, more than 90 percent of Native American children and youths attend regular public schools, on and off reservations, while most of the rest are enrolled in schools that are either operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education or by tribes under contracts with the agency. And the schools that serve Native students tend to be among the most dependent on federal funding—and, therefore, most vulnerable to the sequestration cuts, which affect only federal aid.
Typically, the federal government kicks in less than 10 percent of the cost of educating K-12 students. But in some districts that serve a large Native American population, that share can be as high as 80 percent
Seventy-six of the top 100 districts that rely most heavily on federal funding are districts that receive Impact Aid to help make up for tax revenue lost because of a nearby Indian reservation or lands, according to an analysis of 2010 data from the National Center for Education Statistics by the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools, or NAFIS.
In addition, 90 percent of Native American students go to schools that get federal Title I funds, according to the National Indian Education Association, an advocacy group in Washington. The Title I program—a roughly $14.5 billion pot of money designed to help educate the nation’s poorest children—lost $727 million this school year because of sequestration.
“These are the students that face the most challenges” nationwide, says Larry Ouimette, the superintendent of the Lac du Flambeau district in northern Wisconsin, which enrolls 525 children, more than 95 percent of whom are Native American.
“We’re taking money away from kids who have experienced generational poverty. … We can make a difference,” Mr. Ouimette says, “and just as we’re starting to take the right steps, we’re getting the rug pulled out from under us.”
Tallying Up Losses
Low rates of high school graduation, among other grim educational outcomes, weigh on Indian Country today. In spite of their deep concerns, many Native leaders see a direction for how to improve student achievement and academic prosperity, including through the preservation of tribal cultures and languages.
On most measures of educational success, Native American students trail every other racial and ethnic subgroup of students. To explore the reasons why, Education Week sent a writer, a photographer, and a videographer to American Indian reservations in South Dakota and California earlier this fall. Their work is featured in this special package of articles, photographs, and multimedia. Commentary essays offer additional perspectives.
Read the entire package, and view the videos and photos that go with it: Education in Indian Country: Obstacles and Opportunities
In addition to losing Impact Aid and Title I dollars, the district’s funding from the Indian Education Grants program, or Title VII, under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, took a hit through sequestration. Nationally, that program, which supports activities to connect Native American students with their culture, was reduced by roughly $6 million this year, decreasing its funding to nearly $124 million.
Lac du Flambeau had to cut one of two educators assigned to teach students the Ojibwe language, says Mr. Ouimette.
The local tribe—the Lac du Flambeau Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa—has helped make up for the loss by sending elders and other volunteers to instruct students in language and culture. (Chippewa is another word for Ojibwe.)
There have been other reductions, too. The district, which gets roughly 40 percent of its $10 million budget from the federal government, cut two teaching positions, including the language teacher, from a teaching staff of 60 and asked employees to pick up a greater share of their health-care costs. It also put off plans to upgrade its computers, meaning some students must work with 7-year-old machines.
“We are kind of nickel-and-diming ourselves to death,” Mr. Ouimette says.
Those kinds of tough decisions are typical, says Jocelyn Bissonnette, the director of government relations for NAFIS. The Washington-based organization surveyed 161 Indian-lands districts that receive Impact Aid. Of that number, 144, or nearly 90 percent, had made cuts in the 2013-14 school year. More than half—78—put off maintenance and purchases and 56 slashed instructional positions.
Effect on BIE
Sequestration has also squeezed the Bureau of Indian Education, housed in the U.S. Department of the Interior. The BIE, which operates 183 schools, lost $48 million to sequestration out of a budget of some $380 million, says Charles M. Roessel, the bureau’s acting director.
He says the sequester cuts have led to reductions in the teaching force and have caused some schools to shrink programs, including tutoring. But he was unable to list specific cuts, including the number of teaching jobs eliminated, and could only give one example of a cut: a reduction to a tutoring program for Navajo students.
The BIE has been repeatedly chided by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Congress’ investigative arm, for its poor fiscal and academic management of schools, most recently in a report released in September.
It remains unclear whether Congress will halt—or make changes to—sequestration, which is slated to stay in place for a decade unless lawmakers act. A joint House-Senate panel charged with making long-range budget decisions is expected to release its recommendations on a course of action in mid-December. Education advocates aren’t optimistic the committee will call for getting rid of the cuts altogether.
Some districts that serve a large numbers of American Indian students aren’t sure they’ll be able to cope with another year of cuts.
The 3,400-student Wapato district in central Washington state largely made up for the first round of federal reductions, thanks to an increase in state financing. But the cuts came at the tail end of the recent economic recession, when the district pared back education for gifted and talented students and other services.
“We’ve tightened our belt straps so tight we don’t have many more places to cut,” says Becky Imler, the superintendent. “We’re worried about what will happen if this continues.”
A version of this article appeared in the December 04, 2013 edition of Education Week as Indian Country Schools Hit Hard by Cuts