House Education & the Workforce Committee
Charles Roessel, director of the Bureau of Indian Education, and William Mendoza, executive director, White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education, U.S. Department of Education, answer questions during the House Education & the Workforce Committee hearing on May 14.

Congress Quizzes Bureau of Indian Education: BIE Says Tribes Now at the Table

Tanya H. Lee

Congress asked the Bureau of Indian Education what it intends to do about the “deplorable conditions” in its facilities as some members suggested disbanding BIE altogether or putting it under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Education.

In response to several scathing GAO [Government Accountability Office] reports over the past year, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on May 13, and the full House Education & the Workforce Committee met on May 14. The reports found mismanagement, fraud, communication failures, organizational chaos and staffers not trained to do their jobs, as well as schools and dormitories so dilapidated that they were not only not conducive to learning, they endangered children’s health and safety.

RELATED: In Harm’s Way: Native Students Learning in Crumbling Buildings

Melissa Emrey-Arras, director of Education, Workforce and Income Security Issues at the GAO, told the Senate that BIE had failed to institute the GAO’s recommendations.

BIE Director Charles Roessel, Navajo, disagreed, saying that he is working toward comprehensive reform, not piecemeal fixes. The department has begun by realigning roles and responsibilities of BIE personnel, clarifying the role of line offices and bringing tribes into the process.

“We can’t improve the BIE unless the tribes are with us,” he said. “For the first time tribes are being asked to sit at the table.”

He explained that BIE’s strategic and communication plans are not finalized yet because the agency is still conducting tribal consultations, many of which, he noted, have taken place at the individual tribal level, not in huge meetings.

One of the biggest challenges facing BIE is fragmentation, with different federal agencies responsible for different components of the education system. For example, maintenance and repair of BIE facilities is a BIE responsibility, but new school construction is under a different jurisdiction. This fragmentation results in unconscionable delays in getting new textbooks into classrooms, hiring and housing good teachers, and replacing something as simple as a hot water heater in a school that had no hot water for a year because the repair request was lost in the organizational morass.

Dealing with the $1.3-billion backlog in getting all 183 BIE schools and dormitories into acceptable physical condition is a huge challenge. There has not been for decades, nor is there now, enough money in the federal budget to meet the need. The president has requested $1 billion for Indian education with about $60 million earmarked for repairs and construction at BIE schools. In the meantime the 2015 and 2016 budgets will cover the last three schools on the 2004 school construction priority list. Another list is being prepared now. Sen. John Tester, D-Montana, and several other senators have called on Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to make sure the new priority list is compiled in a fair and transparent process.

RELATED: BIE in Crisis: Underfunded Agency Can’t Do Its Job

The degree of fraud and mismanagement identified by the GAO makes it difficult to convince Congress to allocate more money for BIE schools, said Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-North Dakota, who recommended that BIE focus sharply on those issues to help free up funding. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, said, however, “We can’t say we won’t put in any more money until you prove you won’t waste a dime. We’d never do anything.”

Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Florida, suggested that the U.S. Department of Education take over BIE schools. When that idea was discussed with tribal leaders, said William Mendoza, Oglala-Sicangu Lakota, executive director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education at the Department of Education. “They wholeheartedly rejected the idea of moving BIE schools out of the jurisdiction of the Interior Department.”

Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Georgia, asked why American Indian and Alaska Native kids couldn’t go to public schools, as in fact most of them do, instead of BIE schools. Roessel said tribes had also rejected that proposal. Roughly two-thirds of BIE schools are run by tribes, he said. Public schools often do not offer the same opportunities for a culturally-appropriate education as tribal schools do. It’s a matter of tribal sovereignty, he said; tribes want to keep control of those schools.

Mendoza said, “The way tribes see it is that language, history and culture are the foundation of their ability to succeed. The first thing youth and elders say is ‘We lack a meaningful role and our kids’ education is not rooted in our culture and history. That needs to be the starting point.’”

Roessel said he wanted to expand the role of tribes, to “bring them to the table and give them the resources and capacity to develop their own educational systems” based on standards, curricula and assessments that they put in place for their children.

This is exactly what Tommy Lewis, Navajo, superintendent of schools at the Department of Diné Education, said the Navajo Nation was doing. “We are determined to build an educational system based on Navajo culture and values. The [BIE] system currently fails our students. We will align education in the ways we understand our children’s needs and develop assessments to make sure academic learning is measured accurately.”

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