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Idaho rejects funding for Indian education liaison

BOISE, Idaho – Forces in the Idaho Legislature lobbed a two-pronged attack on tribal economies this session, topping it off with an 18 – 1 vote against funding for an Indian education coordinator.

“The Joint Finance Appropriation Committee for the state of Idaho considered a governor’s request for $107,000 which would have funded two positions within a newly created office for Native Americans in the State Department of Education,” Quanah Spencer, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s Director of Legislative Affairs, said. “What those people would do is coordinate educational activities for Indian students in Idaho, and hopefully assist in addressing some of the issues in regards to our students.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Marilyn Howard asked Gov. Dirk Kempthorne to include the appropriation in his budget after she conferred with tribal leaders across the state. Idaho Indian Affairs Council Vice Chairman Chief Allan, who is also chairman of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, urged council members to lobby for the appropriation.

The council considers education a top priority, but attempts to pursue the funding were derailed after tribes were forced to shift focus and fight for their economic lives.

“Part of the problem was, when we had the meeting in January, we were naive,” Indian Affairs Council Chairman Sen. Michael Jorgenson said. “There was a move to overthrow gaming, superseded by an attempt to take fuel tax from the tribes. Those issues superseded any other priorities we had.”

If nothing else, tribes could have focused on another funding solution for the position, he said.

“There’s a bit of a breakdown still between the tribes and the legislature,” Jorgenson said. “If money were the issue, I’m sure more than one tribe would have funded it.”

Legislators who opposed the appropriation said any problems should be addressed locally.

“We’ve tried that with the local school district and the test scores still remain at the same level,” Spencer said. “We need to take a different statewide look at this to see what kind of resources we can pull from the entire state.”

Coeur d’Alene Tribal Education Director Marjorie Zarate said the reservation’s statistics reflect national data on Indian education.

“That puts us on the bottom of the list in terms of academic achievement,” she said. “I think the test scores of the Native students are rising but the achievement gap is still there and seems to be widening.”

Only about half of Indian students graduate, with many dropping out during the difficult transition from middle school to high school, she said.

A growing number of Indian education advocates are targeting No Child Left Behind, the federal law designed to close the achievement gap. The National Indian Education Association asserts the law is actually causing more American Indian students to give up.

“The Indian voice is heard less and less in this discussion as the Native American community is only beginning to understand the impact,” according to NIEA President David Beaulieu.

Testimony NIEA gathered last year at 11 field hearings on impacts of NCLB in Indian country revealed some consistent viewpoints. Overall, tribal representatives appreciated the concept of school accountability, but they believe the act’s rigid focus on testing, continuing lack of cultural relevancy and failure of government-to-government cooperation between states, tribes and school districts is leaving Native children behind.

“The law’s approach has created serious negative consequences,” a speaker at a Wisconsin NIEA hearing said. “Now, Indian children are being held accountable for the system’s failures. Indian children are internalizing system failures as their own personal failure.”

Another impact noted is that NCLB is driving teachers and educators out of the field. This is particularly detrimental for schools that already have high teacher turnover rates.

Answers remain elusive, Zarate said.

“People realize there’s some deficiency in the overall educational system, but we’re not really finding any solid solutions that we can hang our hat on,” she said.

In addition to improvements at the public school level, she is exploring options for a charter school and other alternatives.

Wilma Bob, an outspoken critic of public schools on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation, says children who are failing shouldn’t have to wait until bureaucrats figure out what to do.

“I don’t know if they can get their feet untangled from the red tape to do anything,” she said. “All they say is, ‘We’re going to have to go meet about that.’” She wants the tribe to support an alternative school.

“The tribe gives millions to education in Idaho from the casino,” Bob said. “If the school doesn’t start taking care of our kids, we should take our money and use it for an

alternative school.”