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Education is priority one for this session

WASHINGTON - With the cabinet nomination process ending, work is set to begin on actual initiatives and policies outlined by the administration and Congress during the campaign.

A top priority for Indian country is education. From the president, to senators, to cabinet nominees and tribal leaders, education is mentioned as the number one issue to be addressed this year.

BIA and tribally controlled schools across the country have been plagued for years by under funding. In many instances the result has been a poor learning environment, but in some cases it resulted in building conditions which are dangerous for Indian students.

A number of senators in the past year, including Pete Domenici, R-N.M., Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., cited examples of dilapidated Indian schools across the country and have characterized Indian education as priority one.

During a campaign stop in New Mexico, President Bush promised Pueblo leaders he would request $1 billion for Indian schools in his first budget proposal to Congress. Bush said he was committed to improving the condition of Indian schools and that Indian education would be a priority.

During confirmation hearings, a number of senators called on Gale Norton, now Interior secretary, to help make the president's promise a reality. Norton said she expects the issue to be one of her first assignments.

Sen. Campbell, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, recently introduced the Native America Educational Improvement Act to reform some aspects of Indian education. He says reforms are needed and rely on local communities to find solutions.

"Like President Bush, I believe that in America, when it comes to educational opportunities, no child should be left behind," Campbell said. "As a former teacher myself, I firmly believe that education holds the key not only to brighter futures for Indian youngsters, but for Native communities as well."

Campbell's education reform bill would provide standards and accreditation for Indian schools, as well as provide local educational authorities with flexibility to design and implement school reforms, without what he calls unproductive and often redundant federal regulations.

"By insisting on tough standards and providing local authorities the flexibility they need, I believe BIA and tribally controlled schools will be vastly improved," Campbell said.

The 1990 census showed approximately 600,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in kindergarten through grade 12 programs in the United States, less than 10 percent or 50,000 of whom are served by the BIA. They are found in 185 schools in 23 states, many on Indian reservations. While these schools represent a small portion of the overall population, the average condition of schools within this group is surprisingly poor.

The Office of Indian Education programs through the Department of Education serves 450,000 or the other 75 percent of the students. There are 1,200 programs in 43 states administered with direct funding to local education agencies. The remaining 100,000 students either have no access to Indian education programs or attend private schools.

Funding levels for Indian education programs increased over the past two years and attention has been drawn to many of the problems. Now, Indian country and Indian youth wait for a $1 billion promise to come true.