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Bureau of Indian Education Overhaul May 'Fall Short,' Lawmakers Fear

By Lauren Camera

This post first appeared on the Politics K-12 blog

By the end of the summer, the Bureau of Indian Education will have a plan in place to begin fixing many of the poor and often unsafe schools across Indian Country, Charles Roessel, the bureau's director, said Thursday at a House education committee hearing.

The plan is part of a larger organizational overhaul at the BIE, which is responsible for overseeing schools on or near American Indian reservations and has been beleaguered for decades by rampant staff turnover, lack of expertise, and financial mismanagement.

Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said he was glad to hear Roessel is attempting to restructure the bureau, but worried the efforts would fall short, as have attempts by previous directors.

"Questions have been raised about whether this will address the fundamental problems facing the system or simply rearrange the chairs at the department," Kline said. "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."

Kline recently traveled to the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school, a federally funded school operated by the Leech Lake Band of the Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota, to witness firsthand one example of poor school facilities.

"More than a century ago the federal government promised to provide Native American students with quality education in a manner that preserves their heritage, and we are failing to keep that promise," Kline added. "If these were our loved ones going to these schools, there is little doubt we would march down Pennsylvania Avenue to demand change."

Roessel said that the BIE recently took several steps to improve student outcomes, including building the capacity of tribal nations to operate their own schools, improving the quality of instruction in BIE-funded schools, and restructuring Indian Affairs within the U.S. Department of the Interior to streamline BIE bureaucracy and improve day-to-day operations.

Still, Roessel said, the BIE has been hampered by major obstacles. Chief among them are its difficulty in attracting effective teachers to BIE schools, which are often located in areas of concentrated poverty and remote locations that lack decent housing, and by a lack of consistent leadership. The BIE has had 33 directors since 1979.

As for the criticism of BIE facilities, Roessel conceded that decrepit schools are still an issue but that the number of schools in poor condition has been reduced over the last 15 years from more than 120 to 58 as of March 30.

A major goal of the reorganization, 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.

"This will allow tribes the opportunity to ask the questions, 'What do we want? What's our vision for education?'" said Roessel. "These are their students, and this is their future. We have often not provided a place for them."

During a round of questioning from committee members, Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., asked why the U.S. Department of Education doesn't play a more central role in overseeing the education of Native America students. The BIE is housed within the Interior Department, not the Education Department.

"This is something that has been discussed with tribal leaders, and they whole heartedly and without equivocation rejected the idea of the BIE being anywhere but the Department of Interior," explained William Mendoza, director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education who also testified at Thursday's hearing.

But Curbelo pushed back. "I certainly believe we should expand the Department of Education's role in all this," he said.

Here's a quick recap of the BIE's jurisdiction:

  • Serves about 48,000 K-12 American Indian students
  • Oversees 183 elementary and secondary schools
  • Directly operates 57 of those schools, with 64 tribes operating 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 

Thursday's hearing came amid a flurry of interest from Congress and the administration about how to right the flailing bureau, including:

  • GAO report released Wednesday that highlights the challenges of improving education for Indian American students.
  • A forthcoming GAO report that will document failing school facilities.
  • U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's visit Wednesday to the Denver Indian Center in Colorado to hold a roundtable discussion with Native American students.
  • The recently unveiled $3 million grant program from the Education Department aimed at helping Native American students become college- and career-ready.
  • The House education committee hearing last month that focused specifically on how poor school facilities can be fixed.
  • The launch of the Obama administration's Generation Indigenous (Gen-I) initiative.
  • The president's 2016 budget request that proposes $1.5 billion more for federal programs that serve tribes.
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