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Obama Pledges Reform, New Investments in Federal Indian Education

By Lesli A. Maxwell — June 13, 2014 3 min read
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By Lesli A. Maxwell

In his first visit to Indian County since winning the White House, President Barack Obama today will announce new efforts to improve schooling for the tens of thousands of American Indian students who attend federally funded schools both on and off reservations.

The president, along with first lady Michelle Obama, will be in Cannon Ball, N.D.,—a tribal community of about 1,000 residents in the heart of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation—where he will unveil a “blueprint for reform” to overhaul the troubled Bureau of Indian Education. He will call for shifting the BIE from being a direct operator of schools to an agency that suppors tribally controlled schools, according to a White House official.

The president also will announce new partnerships with the private sector to help upgrade grossly outdated technology infrastructure in BIE schools and to help tribal schools become more competitive in their applications for highly sought-after E-rate funds. (More details on this from my colleague Sean Cavanagh over at Digital Education.)

The Bureau of Indian Education—which directly operates 57 schools for Native Americans and oversees 126 others run under contract by tribes—has long been the subject of criticism from tribal leaders and educators for its mismanagement of finances and school improvement efforts. President Obama’s plan calls for transforming the BIE into a “school improvement organization” that will assist tribally controlled schools with professional development, recruitment, and retention of teachers and principals, and intervention strategies to help raise student achievement, according to a White House official.

BIE-operated and -funded schools—which enroll less than 10 percent of Native American and Alaska Native schoolchildren—are among the lowest-performing in the nation, and American Indian and Alaska Native students overall lag behind their peers on nearly every academic measure.

According to the White House, the president will also announce a new initiative to cover the costs for teachers and other instructional staff in BIE schools who wish to pursue the rigorous certification process through the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. The advanced certification process for teachers costs roughly $2,000 per candidate.

Finally, as part of the president’s overall Indian education plan, the U.S. Department of Education will work with tribes to free up restrictions on how they must spend some federal education dollars in order to entice them to invest in school improvements and reforms. Just what those reforms will be, however, is not yet clear. The Education Department, along with the U.S. Department of the Interior (which houses BIE), will host a Native languages summit as well.

A draft proposal to overhaul the Bureau of Indian Education that has been circulating through Indian Country since April called for competitive grant funding that would encourage tribal schools to adopt certain K-12 reforms favored by the Obama administration, such as teacher and principal evaluations linked to student achievement and policies that make it easier to fire underperforming staff members.

But that draft—crafted by a seven-member study group that includes five Obama administration officials—has drawn strong opposition from some tribal leaders and educators who view it as an infringement on their sovereignty and another prescribed set of strategies that will not work for Native American children. Details to come from the Department of Interior later today will help make it clear whether parts of the draft plan most objectionable to tribal leaders remain in the final proposal from the president.

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