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Daunting Challenges in Obama’s Bid to Reform Indian Education

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 13, 2014 5 min read
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By Lesli A. Maxwell

As the Obama administration pushes ahead with a plan it hopes can dramatically improve the federally funded schools that serve tens of thousands of Native American children, it must overcome profound distrust among tribal leaders and community members who are more accustomed to the federal government reneging on its promises.

In a visit Friday to the Standing Rock Sioux Nation in Cannon Ball, N.D., President Barack Obama will roll out his vision for a new and improved Bureau of Indian Education—a long troubled agency that directly operates 57 schools for Native American students and oversees 126 others run under contract by tribes. The “Blueprint for Reform” 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] is to continue to talk with our tribal leaders to make sure what happens is right for their schools and their students. We don’t want any more top-down approaches.”

(President Obama is scheduled to talk with Native youth in a closed meeting and then later deliver remarks to members of the Standing Rock community at the tribe’s Flag Day ceremony, which you can watch on at around 4:45 EDT.)

Deteriorating Facilities

The blueprint was crafted by a seven-member study group that includes administration officials. It calls for, among other things: addressing the more than $2 billion in facilities repairs needed to bring all BIE schools up to an “acceptable” condition and recruiting private partners to help cover the costs needed to upgrade grossly-outdated technology infrastructures in many of the schools.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 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 for the tribally controlled schools that BIE oversees in the fiscal 2016 budget. Currently, the BIE provides just 67 percent of such operational costs, often forcing tribal educators to dip into instructional funds to pay for basics such as heating. Those funding shortfalls are also a major deterrent to tribes that would consider taking over the operations of a BIE school, the study group argues.

Another goal of the blueprint is to find ways to strengthen the role of tribal governments as operators of schools, so they are empowered to function more like a local school district that can hold the tribally controlled schools accountable for improving student outcomes. It points to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, which operates its eight tribally controlled schools as a local education agency, and is the direct recipient of BIE funds.

The current BIE budget for its K-12 schools is roughly $800 million—with roughly $200 million of that coming from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of Title I and IDEA grants. Current enrollment in the fragmented system is 48,000 students, less than 10 percent of the total American Indian/Alaska Native population of schoolchildren, the vast majority of whom attend regular public schools.

But even with the president’s focus on this issue, administration officials face daunting challenges in pushing ahead. Though the plan recommends that the U.S. Department of the Interior—which houses the BIE—request additional resources, Congress’ appetite for funding new initiatives is virtually non-existent. And building and maintaining support for the effort in Indian Country will be no simple undertaking, even though tribal leaders and educators are in broad agreement that BIE is in need of a dramatic shakeup.

Lingering Mistrust

Mistrust toward the agency—with its legacy of running boarding schools that were meant to assimilate American Indian children into white, mainstream culture—runs deep. Some of the study group’s earlier ideas for overhauling the agency were met with skepticism and outright opposition.

During consultations with tribes through the spring, the study group got strong pushback on several facets of its plan for BIE. One of the more incendiary issues involved tribal sovereignty—the study group’s suggestion that the Tribally Controlled Schools Act needed to be amended to allow for greater ease in adopting certain reforms—did not make it into the final blueprint. The plan now explicitly states that no changes to the Act will be proposed.

And the study group’s explicit recommendation for developing competitive-grant programs for tribal schools as a way to entice them to adopt Race to the Top-like reforms has also been dropped. Instead, the blueprint urges the development of “incentive grants” that would encourage tribal schools to adopt best practices that the agency helps to identify in other BIE and tribally-controlled schools.

“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 U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and a member of the study group that also included Charles M. Roessel, the BIE director, and Kevin Washburn, the assistant secretary for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

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

Photo: President Barack Obama and Chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe David Archambault II, left, watch male dancers on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation on Friday, June 13, in Cannon Ball, N.D. President Obama is making his first presidential visit to Indian Country for a look at two sides of Native American life, a celebration of colorful cultural traditions and a view of the often bleak modern-day conditions.—Charles Rex Arbogast/AP