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Who Should Fix Bureau of Indian Education Schools?

By Lauren Camera. Cross-posted from the Politics K-12 blog.

A Congressional hearing that documented dilapidated and unsafe conditions in federally funded schools for Native American students didn't come any closer to solving how the federal government can direct existing funding or increase funding to improve the deplorable facilities, an issue that has been plaguing Indian Country for decades.

"Some classrooms lack desks, books, computers, pencils, and paper, while others lack proper flooring, roofing, and ventilation," said Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind., who chaired Tuesday's House education subcommittee hearing.

Rokita has visited several schools on Indian reservations this year. Most recently, he traveled with Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the full education committee, to the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school, a federally funded school operated by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe tribe in Minnesota, to witness one example of the subpar facilities firsthand.

"Some schools are missing a working water heater," he said during opening remarks. "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."

Indeed, a 1969 Senate report described the federal government's failure to provide an effective education as a "national tragedy and a national disgrace" that has "condemned the [American Indian] to a life of poverty and despair."

Those findings don't vastly differ from a Government Accountability Office report released last November that details examples of financial mismanagement and a lack of federal oversight for the 185 schools on or near American Indian reservations that are overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education. 

The BIE, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior (not the U.S. Department of Education), serves approximately 41,000 students in 23 states, often in rural areas and small towns. BIE-operated and -funded schools are among the lowest-performing in the country, as Education Week's Lesli Maxwell explored in this story package on Indian education. 

So why, after decades of reports and hearings that highlight the need to fix poor school facilities and make recommendations about how to do so, are schools in Indian Country still in such disrepair?

Much of the answer has to do with bureaucratic layers of red tape, lack of expertise among staff, and a dizzying number of committees and agencies that have layers of jurisdiction over the schools, but have historically failed to take responsibility for them.

"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," said Kline in talking about the government's failure to take charge of the situation.

"We're having this hearing in this subcommittee that has ... this much to do with schools construction," he said holding his hand up and pinching his fingers together. "But we cannot let that be an excuse and we all owe it to these kids to get past the confusing charts and they way we're organized. It's all our responsibility."

One statistic that was repeated over and over again: In 2014, the Department of Defense received $315 million for school construction for the schools it has jurisdiction over (just part of a $5 billion ongoing project), while the BIE only secured $2 million for its schools.

"It's a sad, sad, sad, picture," said Brian Cladoosby, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, who was one of four witnesses that testified about the condition of the schools. "Congress, as the trustee of these Native American kids, needs to bring to attention the disparity of funding for these kids."

But the path forward is still unclear and the hearing was more about educating members than anything else.

"I hope that the Committee on Natural Resources, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Interior, will take up this issue," said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, in closing remarks. "All we can do at this point is make recommendations to the [BIE]." 

As Kline noted, the House education committee has little jurisdiction over the BIE schools for Native American students. In fact, that Republicans held a hearing on school construction at all is sort of a big deal since the party has historically been adamant about that being a state or local responsibility.

Behind the scenes, staffers 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, while also keeping in mind the GAO's findings about the administrative challenges.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Washington, the Obama administration has recently been trying toget involved in the issue.

President Barack Obama visited Indian Country for the first time since winning the White House a year ago this coming June. There he announced new efforts to improve schooling for the tens of thousands of American Indian students who attend federally funded schools both on and off reservations.

Plans include turning more control of the schools over to the tribes and transforming the BIE into a "school improvement organization" that assists tribally-controlled schools, rather than operating them. But it has been a rocky road, with many challenges

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