WASHINGTON - The National Indian Education Association Legislative Summit convened in Washington Feb. 12 through 14 with funding on its mind, in particular the $16.4 million that has gone missing for the Johnson O'Malley Program in President Bush's budget proposal for fiscal year 2008.
Johnson O'Malley grants provide supplementary financial assistance to Indian students from largely rural, low-income backgrounds, assisting their participation in public schools on par with non-Indian peers by providing books and other reading materials, tutorial services, summer school, scholastic and testing fees, school supplies, youth leadership programs, musical instruments, eyeglasses, counseling, caps and gowns, computer labs and a host of other education-related services.
JOM has been a part of Indian education since 1934, the year of the Indian Reorganization Act. It was arguably the first major installment of modern federal Indian education funding. In addition to providing the countless services that are the program's stock in trade, JOM funds helped to revolutionize Indian education by giving Indian parents and communities a voice in their children's education. Rebecca Adamson has become known as the president and founder of two Native-run nonprofit organizations, including First Peoples Worldwide. But in the early 1970s, as the first person hired by the Coalition of Indian-Controlled School Boards to go out into Indian communities and assist them in establishing their own schools and school boards, Adamson came to know the full value of JOM grants.
''Johnson O'Malley and Impact Aid funds were all we ever had in the beginning,'' she said. ''The idea that they are striking at the very roots of Indian education only makes it certain that we will leave each and every Indian child behind.''
The Bush administration doesn't think so, however. After proposing a 50 percent reduction for FY '06, it has zeroed out the JOM budget altogether for 2008, arguing that the grants duplicate other federal services. A congressional appropriations subcommittee report finds the assertion ''completely unfounded.''
JOM grants are available to tribes, tribal organizations, states and school districts through contract with the BIA, a division of the Interior Department. NIEA members, including a JOM director for the White Mountain Apache, met with Interior's associate deputy director for Indian affairs, James Cason.
Lillian Sparks, NIEA executive director, described the purposes of the meeting. ''While we are excited about some of the new Indian education initiatives [in the president's proposed budget for FY '09] because it recognizes the need for transportation, it recognizes some of the other needs for BIA students, there is still a need for public school students to get funded for these programs that the Department of Education doesn't fund that Johnson O'Malley provides for. And for that reason we're asking that they restore these programs under Johnson O'Malley.''
But JOM was not the summit's only priority. In general, NIEA called for an end to historic funding inequities in federal Native education programs. A handout distributed at the summit described the overarching problem: ''A pattern has developed in recent years where Native education programs get smaller increases in years when overall funding is up and bigger cuts in years when overall funding is down. This is not just and should be corrected.''
NIEA members met with lawmakers and their staff across Capitol Hill to deliver that message, along with specific requests for increased funding of other programs. In addition to JOM, other underfunded or zeroed-out programs that have drawn NIEA advocacy include Education for Native Hawaiians and Alaska Native Education Equity, Impact Aid, the Administration for Native Americans Native Language Immersion and Restoration Programs and Indian School Construction.
Ryan Wilson, past president of NIEA, said construction costs are ''incredibly higher'' than when the Bush administration took office and began to reduce the backlog of school construction needs in Indian country. ''In Indian country, there's broad-based concern that this United States of America has invested in schools in Afghanistan and Iraq, has built over a thousand schools overseas; and yet here we are today, in 2007, we have decrepit buildings that have mold on the walls and lead in the pipes, we have the worst roads still in America, worst transportation system in getting our children to school and crumbling buildings where they are going to school. The new schools that have been built in the last few years - the Mescalero, up at Lummi, different places, the Santa Fe Indian School - are remarkable. And these are the kind of schools that our kids deserve at every tribal community across America. ... And school construction funds, when it keeps getting reduced, it puts us in a scenario where we will never catch up.''
Wilson added that new initiatives in Indian education are being paid for with cuts to other Indian education programs under the Bush budget. ''The new initiatives are important. We welcome them. However, those need to be done by expanding our allocation. ... The Interior appropriation needs to be expanded, not an existing pot of money carved up where the pie gets smaller, and is shrunk. That's unacceptable, because the president ... he's found money to fund the rest of America. And yet when Indian country gets a trickle-down initiative, it has to come out of existing [allocations]. And unfortunately we've drawn a line in the sand with Johnson O'Malley.''