Equity & Diversity

Indian Tribes Decry Plan To Privatize BIA-Run Schools

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 10, 2002 5 min read
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Several American Indian groups contend that the Bush Administration has ignored federal laws supporting Native American self-determination by proposing to privatize Indian schools.

The administration wants all 64 schools now being directly operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to be managed by private companies by the end of 2007, provided tribes don’t want to run them.

The Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, and the National Congress of American Indians have all passed resolutions condemning the privatization proposal, or at least saying they oppose it until the government holds a tribal consultation. The Navajo Area School Board Association was expected to pass a resolution against the proposal this week.

But Jim C. Martin, the chief of the planning division for the BIA’s office of Indian education programs, said privatization could fit in with current federal laws governing Indian affairs. Tribes could have just as much control over schools being managed by private companies as they now do over schools run by the BIA, he said.

Even privatized schools would likely have all-Indian school boards and the BIA would still be the source of funding, Mr. Martin said.

Indian leaders say that they particularly object to the way that the privatization proposal came to light. In a so-called “justification document,” the Bush administration’s fiscal 2003 budget request for the Department of Interior, which administers the BIA, calls for earmarking $11.9 million for a “privatization initiative.” The initiative, the document says, would “empower more local control of bureau-operated schools through tribes contracting/compacting schools or entering into partnerships with private enterprise to manage the schools.”

Mr. Bush’s budget plan cites the poor academic performance of students at BIA schools as the rationale for privatization. It calls the schools “ineffective” and says “the president proposes to use competition to improve the worst-performing BIA-operated schools.”

The privatization idea was conceived by the White House Office of Management and Budget and is part of a general push by the Bush administration to get government agencies to contract with outside providers for various functions, Mr. Martin said.

“If the Indian communities are accepting and willing, I think it’s a viable option,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to reach the scale of 64 schools in seven years. When a community is ready, that’s when it’s going to happen.”

Amy Call, a spokeswoman for the OMB, added that the president’s budget during the preparation stage is usually discussed only internally, so it’s not surprising that the government is only now scheduling consultation with tribes.

“This proposal does envision that implementation would be done with consultation of the tribes,” she said.

Such consultation is scheduled for mid-May.

A Matter of Money

The Bureau of Indian Affairs already has grant or contract arrangements with tribes to operate nearly two-thirds of its 185 schools. The proposal would affect only the 64 schools—39 of which are on Navajo reservations—that aren’t yet run by tribes and are managed directly by the BIA.

Indian groups argue that, although the proposal says tribes would have the first opportunity to run the schools now operated by the BIA, in fact that option may not be viable because the budget doesn’t provide enough money to permit them to do so.

Mr. Martin disagrees, saying that tribes get enough money to run BIA schools. He acknowledged, however, that Congress, in past budgets, has not fully financed tribally run schools.

It’s unclear how much of the $11.9 million earmarked for the privatization proposal is money for the conversion of the 64 BIA-operated schools to new management, and how much would have to be shared with the 121 schools already being run by tribes.

Verner V. Duus, the legislative-affairs consultant for the National Indian Education Association, said he had been able to identify only $3 million that appeared to be new money for change of management in schools now operated by the BIA.

Documents from the BIA seem to indicate that at least $8 million of the $11.9 million would be associated with the conversion of the 64 schools. But Ms. Call, the OMB spokeswoman, said the $11.9 million represents an increase in the budget for operation of all 185 BIA schools this year over last. “It hasn’t been determined yet how these funds will be distributed,” she said.

Native American officials said in interviews that they resist privatization because it would infringe on agreements the U.S. government has with Indian people ensuring that their children have an adequate education and permitting Indians to have control over that education. As long as the BIA is managing schools, they say, tribes are assured of a relationship with the federal government and can petition Congress for treaties to be observed.

“It’s eroding our sovereignty,” said Tony Garcia, a Yankton Sioux and the superintendent of a BIA grant school on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. He’s in favor of the resolution that was passed by the Oglala Sioux tribal council opposing any changes in BIA schools on the reservation without consulting the tribe.

Facing the Fire

The privatization proposal drew criticism here in Washington recently at a conference sponsored by the National Indian Education Association on Indian education in general. A number of conference attendees also visited the offices of their members of Congress while here to express discontent over the proposal.

Bill A. Mahojah, a member of the Kaw tribe and the director of the office of Indian education programs for the BIA, faced the criticism on behalf of the Bush administration at a session of the conference.

The rationale behind the proposal, Mr. Mahojah said, is accountability. “The people in the administration were looking at ways to improve education of Indian students in BIA schools,” he said.

He mentioned that the New York City-based Edison Schools Inc. would be one of a handful of private management companies that would likely be considered eligible to run BIA-financed schools.

During a comment period following Mr. Mahojah’s explanation, several Native Americans condemned the privatization proposal.

If privatization of BIA schools occurs at all, it should be done only with companies operated by Native Americans, said Verlie Ann Malina-Wright, the vice chairwoman of the Native Hawaiian Education Council. “Are we going to let an outsider come in on the reservation and tell us what to do?” she said.

“It seems that the plan is set in stone, and you want to come to the tribes afterward,” said Jack Lyle, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council. “We’ll oppose this until you can come up with a better alternative.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Indian Tribes Decry Plan To Privatize BIA-Run Schools

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