A U.S. Senate report from 1969 describes the federal government’s failure to provide an effective education for Native American children as a “national tragedy and a national disgrace” that has “condemned the [American Indian] to a life of poverty and despair.”
Nearly 50 years later, little has changed, in the view of advocates, lawmakers, and tribal leaders alike. Graduation rates in Indian Country are among the lowest of all student subgroups, and there’s a laundry list of schools in need of significant repairs, some of which lack essentials like heat and running water.
While the vast majority of Native American children attend traditional public schools run by local districts, members of Congress and the Obama administration—both of which have admitted to shouldering some blame for the current situation—are pressuring the Bureau of Indian Education to right its flailing operations at the schools the BIE oversees on or near American Indian reservations.
In response, the BIE, which serves about 48,000 of the roughly 950,000 Native American students in the country, has embarked on a massive organizational overhaul. It has promised that by summer it will have a plan in place to begin fixing many of its poor, often unsafe schools.
• Part of the U.S. Department of the Interior
• Serves about 48,000 K-12 American Indian students, about 7 percent of Native American students overall
• Oversees 183 elementary and secondary schools. Directly operates 57 of those schools, while 64 tribes operate the remaining 126 schools through grants or contracts with the BIE
• Oversees about 11,400 teachers, principals, school administrators, and other staff working within the 183 schools
• Has had 33 directors in the past 36 years
Source: U.S. Department of the Interior
But since the bureau unveiled its blueprint for reorganizing last year, adjustments to its operations have been slow going, prompting some to question whether it will work. After all, the BIE, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior, has been beleaguered for decades by rampant staff turnover, lack of expertise, and financial mismanagement. In the last 36 years, it’s cycled through 33 directors.
“Questions have been raised about whether this will address the fundamental problems facing the system or simply rearrange the chairs at the department,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said May 14 during a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives that addressed the BIE’s shortcomings. “Questions have also been raised about whether this reorganization is being done in a timely manner or being delayed by the same bureaucratic wrangling that has plagued these schools for decades.”
Meanwhile, with Republicans in Congress focused on reducing the deficit and pruning the budget for federal agencies and programs, there’s little new money to be directed toward the problems.
Years of Inaction
Concerns in Congress about the BIE stem from years of inaction by the agency, despite reports from the Government Accountability Office and others that included recommendations for changes the agency should make in order to be more effective.
But Charles M. Roessel, who was named director of the BIE in 2013 after spending two years at the bureau overseeing 66 BIE-funded schools on the Navajo Nation reservation that spreads across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, said during congressional hearings in April and May that this time would be different.
A major goal of the reorganization, Mr. Roessel said, is to shift the role of the BIE from being a provider of education for Native American students to being more of an overseer of and partner to tribal communities that eventually will have the funding and skill set to run their own schools. That plan also calls for training to be provided to the tribes.
“This will allow tribes the opportunity to ask the questions, ‘What do we want? What’s our vision for education?’ ” said Mr. Roessel. “These are their students, and this is their future. We have often not provided a place for them.”
The foundation for that transition was recently laid through a bureauwide effort to reduce reporting burdens, provide services more effectively, improve accountability, and address concerns raised by tribal leaders—general improvements that the BIE hopes will make the transition of power to tribes easier.
Mr. Roessel is trying to bolster those efforts with the approximately $790 million in the agency’s current budget.
For the 2015 fiscal year, lawmakers appropriated $19.2 million over fiscal 2014 levels to complete a school replacement and construction project started last year, and also included a $14.1 million increase for grants to tribally controlled schools.
Some of that money was recently disbursed to six tribes with three or more BIE-funded schools that received $200,000 each to research, assess, and develop an implementation plan to establish a tribally-managed school system. The BIE also identified 20 tribal colleges that are set to receive $50,000 to help increase the number of low-income students who are prepared to enter postsecondary education by creating bridge programs for BIE students.
Most recently, on April 29, the Obama administration unveiled $3 million in grants to help American Indian and Alaska Native students get ready for college. The new program, run through the U.S. Department of Education, will award five to seven grants ranging from $400,000 to $600,000 to tribal communities, before the current federal fiscal year ends on Sept. 30.
In addition, the president’s fiscal 2016 budget includes a $1 billion investment in BIE-funded schools—that would be a $140 million boost over what they currently receive, though it’s not likely to come to fruition.
Representatives from Indian Country said the funding—even the proposed increases for fiscal 2016—are still not enough to clear out the current backlog of schools that are rated in poor condition by the federal government.
The government recently estimated that 63 of 183 BIE schools were in poor condition and that bringing them to fair condition would cost $1.3 billion.
“The U.S. spends billions of dollars on the construction of buildings for federal uses but somehow can’t seem to budget sufficient funding to ensure that American Indian children go to school in buildings that are not only safe but also conducive to learning,” said Carrie Jones, the chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota who testified before the Senate about the BIE’s reorganization May 13.
Ms. Jones oversees the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig schools, which Rep. Kline recently toured along with fellow Republican Rep. Todd Rokita of Indiana, the chairman of the Indian education subcommittee.
“Some schools are missing a working water heater,” Rep. Rokita said after seeing the decrepit facilities. “Others are missing front doors and are rodent-infested. Too many schools lack adequate infrastructure and educational resources, ... and it has been this way for far too long.”
The overall problem isn’t confined to the BIE itself, either. In fact, what GAO reports and others have identified as one of the biggest problems with the BIE—administrative woes caused by overlapping offices and bureaucratic red tape—is also one of the major obstacles Congress and the administration have in overseeing the agency.
Layers of Jurisdiction
A dizzying number of committees and agencies have layers of jurisdiction over schools for Native American students but have historically failed to take responsibility for them. Behind the scenes, staff members from different authorizing and appropriating committees and agencies are trying to coordinate the various funding streams and pots of money and devise ways to fast-track money to the schools.
“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Rep. Kline during a hearing, in talking about the government’s failure to take charge of the situation.
As if to drive home Rep. Kline’s point, Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, added, “I hope that the Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Interior, will take up this issue. All we can do at this point is make recommendations to the [BIE].”
A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Stakes High for Bureau of Indian Education’s Overhaul