Good news for Indian schools

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A Minnesota congresswoman, together with a national Indian association, deserve kudos for working to address an oversight in the Recovery Act that has prevented Bureau of Indian Education schools from accessing stimulus funding.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN4), on Jan. 20 joined 16 bipartisan co-sponsors in introducing a bill that would allow BIE schools to apply for stimulus funding.

“I introduced this bill to address the extreme lack of funding that perpetuates adverse conditions and unmet basic needs in Indian country,” she said. “Not including BIE schools was an oversight, and we’re trying to fix it.”

Nearly 50,000 students attend 183 BIE schools nationwide, she said. The bill would allow BIE schools to access funds from the $4.35 billion federal Race to the Top Fund competitive grant program and the Innovation Fund under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

BIE schools have faced historical neglect and their students, subsequently, continue to struggle to succeed.

BIE schools have faced historical neglect and their students, subsequently, continue to struggle to succeed.

The BIE high school graduation rate for 2007-2008 was 53.5 percent, according to the BIE. The graduation rate for schools nationwide that year was nearly 75 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s a difference of about 21 percent.

In addition, BIE students had the second-highest dropout rate for any ethnicity in the 2006-2007 school year at 8.3 percent, according to the BIE and the National Center for Education Statistics. Only Hispanics, at 21.4 percent, had a higher dropout rate that year.

Under Title 1 of No Child Left Behind, just 1 percent of funding is allocated to the BIE and to outlying territories, and BIE schools typically receive 0.72 percent of federal funding.

McCollum’s bill would prevent BIE schools from being deprived of the same economic relief and incentives for improved education as public schools, she said. It provides direct access to stimulus funding to tribes and BIE schools and would set aside at least 1 percent, but not more than 5 percent, of remaining Race to the Top funds and the Innovation Fund for BIE schools.

She said long-term investment in education is important to create systemic change and find overdue solutions to education problems. No community has faced such problems in educating their youth as Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

“We must prevent the first Americans from becoming an invisible people in the eyes of the federal government,” McCollum said.

In exchange for vast tracts of Native land, the U.S. government assumed a protective role that developed into a trust relationship with tribes. That trust involves the government’s legal and moral duty to assist tribes in protecting their property and rights. Ultimately, it’s a duty to ensure the continued survival of tribes and their governments.

In recent years, the battle to improve Indian education has focused more on improved funding and programming for Native schools.

Too often, the government has failed in that responsibility considering the long history of forced assimilation and removal of Indian children by the government. In recent years, the battle to improve Indian education has focused more on improved funding and programming for Native schools.

The oversight in the Recovery Act affecting BIE schools is just another example of this funding neglect. If not for Native education advocates’ dedication to meeting the needs of tribal youth, that neglect would have carried into funding meant to improve education for all this country’s students. Turns out, the National Indian Education Association brought the stimulus funding oversight to McCollum’s attention. Their attention to the issue should serve as a reminder to other Native advocates to work to ensure tribes have access to stimulus funding in all areas, including health care, education and economic development.

On Jan. 20, NIEA President Patricia Whitefoot (Yakama and Diné) applauded McCollum’s effort.

“The National Indian Education Association is very pleased to support this bill as it upholds the trust responsibility of the United States government to ensure equitable educational quality and access for all Indian students,” Whitefoot said.

The bill represents what Native students need – more opportunities to prove they are among the brightest in the nation.