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Native Students' Education in 'Ongoing State of Emergency'

"Indian education is in nothing less than an ongoing state of emergency," and "the historically inadequate budget for the Bureau of Indian Affairs consistently inhibits the basic function of a schools—providing a safe learning environment for students."

Those were two of the strong statements made by Heather Shotton, president of the National Indian Education Association, to a House subcommittee on appropriations in Washington on Wednesday.

The federal government is responsible for directly funding and operating two education systems: the Department of Defense schools and the Bureau of Indian Education, or tribal, schools. Shotton said she appreciated the chance to talk to lawmakers about how the federal government could bring parity to Native education.

She spoke briefly on the academic challenges of Native students, who are a significantly rural population. They have lower graduation rates and test scores than the national average, and fewer enroll in college.

The bulk of her comments focused on the facilities of Bureau of Indian Education schools, which are 60 years old on average (or 20 years older than the average traditional public school). She cited four Bureau of Indian Education schools on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in Rosebud, S.D., where federal inspectors had found last year 120 safety deficiencies that could jeopardize the lives of students attending them.

"Native children should not risk their lives on a daily basis to access their fundamental right to an education," Shotton said. "Such problems stem from the federal government's negligence in properly maintaining BIE facilities, which are exceeding their life expectancies by decades."

She asked specifically for an updated list of tribal schools in poor condition as well as construction priority lists. Those last were released in 2009 and 2004, respectively, and those "outdated" lists are unacceptable, she said.

She also requested the full funding needed to complete projects from the existing construction priority lists. The association has submitted a $263.4 million budget request for school construction, repair and replacement.

"Without adequate funds to provide safe learning environments, students cannot be expected to excel," she said.

Finally, she said federal agencies need to collaborate to ensure existing education programs are effective and funding is used efficiently. That could be done by establishing a tribal advisory committee to advise the Secretary of the Interior on policy issues and budget development for the BIE school system, she said.

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