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BIA's education programs lagging behind nation

WASINGTON - Depending on who you listen to, American Indian education is
alternately abysmal, making progress, under-funded or succeeding in some
areas. At best, it is complicated.

At a recent hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, committee
members pushed BIA officials for real answers to some real problems. But
the answers that came were not always adequate.

Jim Cason, associate deputy secretary for Indian Affairs, told the
committee that the findings of studies indicate that BIA schools are not
producing acceptable results. Only one-third of students are meeting the
goals, he said.

According to data collected by the Office of Indian Education of the
Education Department, American Indian students lag in reading, math and
science at the fourth- and eighth-grade levels. OIE Director Victoria
Vasques said there is much work to do, as not until now did anyone have a
benchmark from which to work. She said the dropout rate was high and the
rates of expulsion from school were higher than for non-Indian children.

"We are trying to figure out why we are only producing those results,"
Cason said.

One of the top priorities in education is the construction of new or
remodeling of old BIA facilities. Dr. David Beaulieu, president of the
National Indian Education Association, said most of the BIA schools are 60
years old and 65 percent are in very bad condition.

Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., showed some impatience when
it came to extracting answers from the BIA officials on the schools' needs
assessment.

"With 64 BIA schools and another 122 grant and contract schools, why will
it take until July 2006 to find out what construction and transportation
needs are needed for these schools?" McCain asked in response to a comment
made by Ed Parisien, director of education for the BIA, concerning
construction evaluations.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, vice chairman of the committee, showed his frustration
about the lack of a needs assessment and suggested the testimony given by
government officials may not have been in English.

"I know money isn't everything, I don't know what is happening in respect
to funding; and you don't have a needs assessment. We know what shape the
schools are in and we need to bring them up to standards," Dorgan said.

In respect to tribal college funding, Dorgan asked if the $10 million cut
in tribal college funding was a step forward or backward and how it would
advance education.

"It probably doesn't [advance education], but there are a lot of
considerations that go into the budget and it starts with tribal budget
meetings, discussion with the Department of Interior about balancing the
BIA budget," Cason said.

He added that the overlying rationale of the budget was consistent with a
pace needed to get school construction done. "We are trying to get caught
up; we are trying to get funding for those schools that didn't have
adequate funding. The president placed a huge investment on new
construction with $1.5 billion over a four-year period."

But Dorgan, the ranking member of the Interior appropriations committee,
was not amused with those figures. He said the figures don't add up and
spending is one-half billion less that the previous fiscal year.

"The fiscal policy is off the tracks; we don't have a needs assessment.
That should be the first criteria, it is for the children. We've got to do
better. I'm not impressed with your priorities," he told BIA officials.

Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., a member of the committee, too was upset over the
reduction in tribal college funding, but also brought up the needs of three
schools in his home state. Crow Creek, which lost a dormitory to fire last
March is still in need of adequate housing facilities or it could face a
large reduction in students, therefore having to reduce staff, which will
be an economic hit to the community.

Johnson and Dorgan, both democrats, didn't miss using the tax for the
wealthy issue to emphasize that American Indian education is under-funded
while the treasury is reduced by virtue of tax cuts for the wealthy.

"The cost of tax cuts for people who make $1 million per year drain the
treasury by $32 billion in 2006 and we say we don't have $10 million for
Indian kids to get a college education - it is mind boggling," Johnson
said.

"Education on reservations is not all about money. Retention of teachers
and problems with the No Child Left Behind Act demand attention.

"You talk about academic achievement; from our school, 50 to 75 percent of
the students are proficient or advanced in some areas, but there is a
problem with NCLB when we determine the whole school and one or two
students can put the whole school in jeopardy," said Dr. Roger Bordeaux,
superintendent of the Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Sisseton-Wahpeton
Reservation in South Dakota.

"It disturbs me that the solution for improving our schools is adding more
high-level management positions. I am willing to bet part of my salary that
it will not make a difference over time," he said.

The BIA is reorganizing education management positions and will change the
number of line officers from 23 to 11 while it adds higher level positions.
That's not what the tribes want to hear. Tribal education officials want
more administration at the local level.

"If you are going to spend $2 of $3 million, spend it at the school level
instead of the management level," Bordeaux said.

A tribal or BIA school, Bordeaux said, raises 40 percent of its funding
from sources other than the BIA. These fragile funds could be gone at any
time, Bordeaux said.

Faculty turnover and attracting quality teachers is an especially
significant problem for schools located in isolated areas, such as the
Southwest or in the Great Plains, and there seems to be no easy solution
forthcoming.

McCain suggested that teachers may get incentive pay, much as Foreign
Service employees or military personnel receive when they are sent to
remote areas. The number of American Indians graduating with teaching
degrees would not fulfill the need for the BIA alone.

Bordeaux said his school has had success with homegrown teachers. He
suggested letting para-educators teach without certificates while they get
a degree. "A lot of teachers have gone that way; I think it can work," he
said.

The committee will hold another hearing in the fall to hear what the BIA
studies and data analysis have found about education in Indian country.