School & District Management

Plan to Improve American Indian Schools Faces Skepticism

By Lesli A. Maxwell — July 08, 2014 7 min read
President Barack Obama and David Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, watch tribal dancers during the president’s visit last month to the Standing Rock reservation in Cannon Ball, N.D.
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To make good on a new pledge to dramatically improve the federally funded schools that serve nearly 50,000 American Indian children, the Obama administration must overcome profound distrust among tribal leaders and community members who are more accustomed to the federal government reneging on its promises.

On the same day of his visit last month to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in Cannon Ball, N.D., President Barack Obama unveiled the administration’s vision for a new and improved Bureau of Indian Education. The long-troubled agency directly operates 57 schools for Native American students and oversees 126 others run under contract by tribes—a small slice of the wide range of publicly funded schools serving that student population.

Called the “Blueprint for Reform,” the plan calls for a reorientation of the BIE from an agency that operates schools from Washington to a “school improvement organization” that delivers resources and support services to schools that are locally controlled by tribes.

“The fact that Indian education is being elevated to the president’s level is a really big step,” said Ahniwake Rose, the executive director of the Washington-based National Indian Education Association. “We finally have an administration that is paying attention to our students.

“But what we are going to ask the administration, as they roll out [the blueprint],” she said, “is to continue to talk with our tribal members to make sure what happens is right for their schools and their students. We don’t want any more top-down approaches.”

Rex Lee Jim, the vice president of the 250,000-member Navajo Nation—where 60 schools are either BIE-funded or -operated—expressed support for the blueprint, calling it a “step in the right direction” in a letter to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

He said the plan, if carried out with close consultation with tribal educators and leaders, would enable the Navajo Nation to boost its ability to “effectively oversee and hold accountable tribally controlled grant schools, as well as assert greater authority over the curriculum, standards, and assessments used at those schools.”

‘An Embarrassment’

The reorganization of the BIE comes after years of scathing reports from watchdog groups, including the U.S. Government Accountability Office, and chronic complaints from tribal educators about the agency’s financial and academic mismanagement and failure to advocate more effectively for the needs of schools that serve Native American students. The reorganization process will unfold during the next two years.

It also comes a year after Secretary Jewell, whose department includes the BIE, called the federally funded Indian education system “an embarrassment” during a Congressional hearing on the topic.

Christopher G. Bordeaux, the executive director of the Oceti Sakowin Education Consortium, a group of tribal schools located on reservations across South Dakota, said it will be difficult to convince some American Indian educators that the BIE has good intentions with the reorganization.

“For years, we’ve asked the bureau for help, but we never get it,” Mr. Bordeaux said. “We figure out how to do this stuff on our own.

“The bureau really has no idea what tribal schools are all about,” he said, “and they’ve not taken the time to ever listen and learn how to help us, and then they turn around and point to us and say the schools are failing.”

And the BIE’s not-so-distant history of running boarding schools that sought to suppress tribal identity and assimilate American Indian children into white mainstream culture remains a painful legacy for many tribal elders and leaders who attended the schools.

The BIE is overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior. Only about 7 percent of the nation’s American Indian and Alaska Native students are served in BIE-funded schools.

Starting From Behind

On most measures of educational success, American Indian and Alaska Native children lag behind their peers. According to federal data, the four-year graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native students in 2011-12 was 67 percent, trailing all other major student groups except for English-language learners.

BIE students, compared with their Native American peers in regular public schools, also scored lower on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests in 4th grade.

Poverty rates in tribal communities are among the most severe in the nation. Pine Ridge, S.D., which is home to the 40,000-member Oglala Lakota Nation, has a per-capita income of less than $8,000 a year, for example.

The administration’s proposal to overhaul the BIE, first published in April and revamped significantly before its final release as the blueprint in June, was drafted by a seven-person “study group” appointed jointly by Secretary Jewell and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Among many other provisions, it calls for addressing the more than $2 billion in facilities repairs needed to bring all BIE schools up to “acceptable” condition and recruiting private partners to help cover the costs needed to upgrade grossly outdated technology infrastructures in many of the schools.

Already, the Los Angeles-based Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and three telecommunications companies have agreed to chip in modest financial support for some of the technology upgrades to BIE schools.

The blueprint also urges the administration to request that Congress fully fund the operational costs budget for the tribally controlled schools overseen by the BIE. Currently, the BIE provides 67 percent of such costs, often forcing tribal educators to dip into instructional funds for basics like heating.

The current BIE budget for its K-12 schools is roughly $800 million—with about $200 million of that coming from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants. Current enrollment in the fragmented system is 48,000 students.

Beyond BIE Schools

Some education officials and advocates point to the limited reach of President Obama’s blueprint, given that most American Indian children are enrolled in regular public school districts, many of them on reservations or adjacent to tribal lands.

Those schools rely disproportionately on federal dollars—known as impact aid—to help make up for tax revenue lost because reservation lands are nontaxable.

“The problems and challenges with BIE schools are very similar to our schools,” said John Forkenbrock, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of Federally Impacted Schools. “We also have poor facilities in our districts and challenges with finding and retaining good educators for our students.”

Cody Two Bears, a member of the tribal council for the Standing Rock Nation, urged Mr. Obama during the president’s visit to the reservation not to overlook the importance of protecting the needs of impact-aid schools, which were hit hard by the cuts to federal education spending brought on by the recent budget sequestration, Mr. Forkenbrock said.

‘High-Achieving Schools’

Though the blueprint’s authors recommend that the Interior Department ask for money to pay for changes to the BIE, Congress’ appetite for new initiatives is virtually nonexistent. And building and keeping support for the effort in Indian Country will be no simple undertaking, even though tribal leaders and educators are in broad agreement that the BIE is in need of a shakeup.

In the draft of the BIE reorganization presented to tribes throughout the spring, several facets of the study group’s plan got strong pushback. One of the more incendiary issues involved tribal sovereignty: The study group suggested that the Tribally Controlled Schools Act needed amendment to allow for greater ease in adopting certain improvement measures—an idea that did not make the final blueprint.

Tribal resistance also prompted the study group to drop its original proposal to create a Race to the Top-like competitive-grant program for tribal schools that agreed to adopt policies such as teacher evaluations tied in part to student test scores. Instead, the blueprint calls for the development of “incentive grants” that would encourage tribal schools to adopt best practices that BIE officials help identify in other tribally and agency-controlled schools.

And while the blueprint’s authors originally envisioned a revamped BIE developing robust recruitment and retention strategies for talented teachers and principals, the final plan focuses more on beefing up professional-development opportunities for educators already working in the schools. During the next three years, the administration will cover the costs for teachers and other instructional-staff members in BIE schools who wish to pursue the rigorous certification process offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

“The overarching goal of this is that tribes, down the road, will be running all their schools and that they will be high-achieving schools,” said Donald Yu, a special assistant to Secretary Duncan and one of the seven members of the study group, which also included Charles M. Roessel, the BIE director, and Kevin Washburn, the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

“We do not want this to be a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Mr. Yu said. “BIE should, and will, provide customized technical assistance by listening to schools’ specific problems and helping them solve those problems.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as President’s Blueprint For BIE-Run Schools Faces a Tough Sell


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