California Teens Education Field Trip
A group of students listen to a field trip guide during a field trip to Indian Canyons in Palm Springs, California in 2009.

Native American Education Goes to Congress: 7 Bills to Watch

Tanya H. Lee

Congress has before it several pieces of legislation that could have major impacts on the education of American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children. To participate in the process, let your state’s Congressional delegation know whether you want them to support these bills.

Exemption From Budget Cuts

On June 4, Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Tom Udall, D-N.M., introduced “A bill to exempt the Indian Health Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and certain other programs for Indians from sequestration” (S.1497). This legislation would exempt Bureau of Education, among other federal agencies dealing with Native American interests, from further cuts under sequestration. It was referred to the Senate Committee on the Budget.

“Across-the-board budget cuts presented a major setback for Indian Country, forcing cuts to vital programs that New Mexico tribal communities depend on,” Udall said in a news release. “We have a trust responsibility to uphold to tribes, and I’m pleased to work with Senator Tester on this legislation to ensure that important health care, education, public safety and housing programs that support economic growth in Indian Country won’t be subject to future disastrous sequestration cuts.”

Sequestration has already meant a $42.2-million cut to the Bureau of Indian Education and an $11.9 million cut to Tribal Head Start, impacting 25,000 American Indian children.

Native Language Immersion

Tester announced May 27 at the Fort Peck Indian Reservation that he has reintroduced the Native Language Immersion Student Achievement Act (S.1948), which would establish a new Native American language grant program under the Department of Education. The $5 million in grants each year for the next five years would be available for pre-K though college programs and would be awarded to tribes, tribal organizations and public and private schools.

The intent of the legislation is “to establish a grant program to support schools using Native American languages as the primary language of instruction of all curriculum taught at the schools that will improve high school graduation rates, college attainment, and career readiness.”

Tester said, “Native languages connect students with their culture, history and heritage. This bill increases access to critical funding for language immersion programs and ensures the survival of Native languages before it is too late.”

Languages Reauthorization Act of 2015

On a similar note, Udall and Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Reps. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., and Steve Pearce, R-N.M., on April 30 introduced the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act of 2015—S.1163 in the Senate and H.R.2174 in the House. The bill reauthorizes the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Program, established in 2006, until 2020. The legislation would continue to provide grants to Native American language educational organizations to preserve disappearing Native languages.

The reauthorization includes improvements to expand the program’s eligibility to smaller-sized classes (from 10 to 5 enrollees in Native American language nests, and from 15 to 10 enrollees in the Native American language survival schools) and allow for longer grant periods of up to 5 years. The act expired in 2012, but the program has continued to be funded pending reauthorization. This legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Unique Indian Learning

In February, Udall and Luján introduced the Building upon Unique Indian Learning and Development Act. The Senate bill (S.410) was referred to the SCIA, and the House bill (H.R.1082) has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The legislation would “establish an in-school facility innovation program contest in which institutions of higher education, including Tribal Colleges and Universities are encouraged to consider solving the problem of how to improve school facilities for tribal schools and schools served by the Bureau of Indian Education for problem-based learning in their coursework and through extracurricular opportunities.” It will also increase support for teachers and administrators of schools attended by Native American students and enact other provisions that would involve amending the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to better serve Native American students.

Native Hawaiian Education

Introduced by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, in early February, the Native Hawaiian Education Reauthorization Act of 2015 (H.R.895) would change the composition, duties and responsibilities of the Native Hawaiian Education Council, gives grant priority to certain programs that benefit Native Hawaiian students, including those that “meet the unique cultural and language needs of Native Hawaiian students in order to help them meet challenging state academic achievement standards.” The bill has been referred to the House Education and Workforce Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education. A companion bill, S.464, was introduced by Sen. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, and referred to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.

Native American Indian Education Act

In February, Sens. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced S.1390, the Native American Indian Education Act, which would provide states with the funding to fulfill the federal mandate that the state’s colleges and universities cover the cost of tuition for out-of-state American Indian students. The mandate was a condition under which the college or state received its original grant of land and facilities from the United States.

The legislation has been referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions. An identical bill, H.R.1089 was introduced in the House by Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Appropriations. The bill has 37 co-sponsors from 17 states. Similar legislation was introduced in 2010 but failed to pass then and in subsequent years.

The out-of-state land-grant tuition waiver applies to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, which had an American Indian student enrollment of about 800 in 2012, or 20 percent of its total student population, and to the University of Minnesota, Morris. Both schools offer tuition waivers to American Indians who live in-state. Other schools that offer free tuition to American Indian residents include the University of Maine and the University of Massachusetts, as well as public institutions of higher education in Michigan.

Teacher Loan Forgiveness

Introduced in January by Rep. Raul Ruiz, D-Calif., the American Indian Teacher Loan Forgiveness Act of 2015 (H.R.386) would give up to $17,500 of loan forgiveness to borrowers who “are a member of an Indian tribe, and have been employed as a full-time teacher for five consecutive complete school years in an Indian school or in a local educational agency that serves at least 10 Indian students or whose schools have an enrollment of students at least 25% of which are Indians.” The bill, which has 11 co-sponsors, was referred to the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training in late April.

RELATED: NCLB Gets an F. What’s Next in Your Child’s Classroom?

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