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Daschle: Native American children must not be left behind

As I travel throughout my home state of South Dakota, I have had the privilege of visiting many schools that serve Native American children. The dedicated teachers and staff at these schools provide critical services to thousands of students. However, these schools often lack the resources and facilities they need. I have seen countless underfunded schools in Indian country with crumbling facilities and crowded classrooms where children lack even the most basic supplies.

As a result, too many Native American children are falling behind in our current educational system. They're not getting the skills they will need to succeed in life and participate fully in their local economies.

The main goal of the No Child Left Behind Act, the education reform bill enacted in January 2002, was to identify these and other schools that needed to improve their programs in order to ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed in school. The law called for higher student achievement standards, and required that all children be taught by highly qualified teachers. Just as important, however, the law promised to give struggling schools the resources and support they need to provide children a solid educational foundation.

Unfortunately, the federal government, while quick to implement more testing, has been slow to provide the support schools need to improve their programs. This problem affects both schools run or funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), as well as public schools that serve large numbers of Native American children. Educators at BIA-funded schools give numerous examples of late grant funding and incomplete and even inaccurate information about the steps they need to take to bring their schools into compliance and better serve their students.

Both BIA and public schools are concerned that the failure of the federal government to live up to its commitment to fund the new law has left many schools in Indian country without the ability to address the challenges facing their children and students. Funding for the new law has been woefully inadequate. The final appropriations bill for the current fiscal year falls more than $7.5 billion short of what was promised by No Child Left Behind. The President's budget proposal, released earlier this month, underfunds these education programs by $9.4 billion.

Funding for facility improvements at BIA-controlled schools has also suffered. While many BIA-funded schools have notoriously inadequate facilities, the President's fiscal year 2005 budget actually cuts funding for school construction and maintenance for the second year in a row. This proposed cut comes in spite of a significant backlog in both facility repairs and new construction. The BIA estimates the cost of eliminating the backlog in education facility repair and construction at nearly $1 billion. Yet the President's budget prefers to allow educational facilities to further deteriorate.

In response to this situation, I have renewed my efforts to secure additional funding for schools in Indian country. There is no question that strong schools are key to improving the economic well-being of people in Indian country. That is why I will be working to increase federal funding for BIA schools and public schools as Congress considers the President's budget proposal this year.

I am also calling on the Department of Education and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to immediately address the funding shortfalls and other issues that prevent schools in Indian country from receiving the assistance they need. We cannot allow bureaucratic delays and unclear rules to prevent these schools from taking the necessary steps to provide the best possible education for Native American children.

Expanding educational opportunities for every Native American child is critical to improving the quality of life in Indian country. We can and must do better.

Tom Daschle, a Democrat, is the senior senator from South Dakota and serves as the Senate Minority Leader. In addition to his leadership post, Daschle also serves as a member of the Agriculture, Finance and Rules committees. In past Congresses, he has served on the Veterans Affairs, Indian Affairs and Ethics committees. Daschle is a native of Aberdeen, S.D.