Johnson O'Malley program faces steep obstacles to gain adequate federal funding


ANADARKO, Okla. - For many Native students, the federal Johnson O'Malley program is a source of stability in their educational lives. It is the knowledge that school materials and eyeglasses will be supplied for them, or that tutoring will be available to them in core subjects. In many school districts, it provides a cultural outlet, where Native languages can be learned or an opportunity to dance as a touring group with other students exists.

However, to the parent committees and education directors that are a part of the JOM program, it is a constant struggle to make sure those funds are available so Native students have an equal chance to succeed with other students and have a chance to experience Native culture as part of the public school curriculum.

''Without the funding, we basically can't provide the services that we can normally,'' said David Sullivan, Kiowa, director of the Anadarko Indian Education program. ''The primary area that I think sets it apart from any other funding is the focus on culture - the ability to utilize funds for cultural activities. That can be a broad spectrum of activities or subjects.''

The program was passed by Congress and became law on April 16, 1934; it was amended in 1936 and 1975. At the time of its origin, much of Indian education was focused on boarding schools; but since that time, the majority of American Indian students are now a part of public school systems. Currently, money for the program is distributed through the BIA's Bureau of Indian Education, where it is managed through tribal education programs or Indian education programs within public school districts to reach Native students ranging from age 3 to grade 12.

''The purpose of JOM, according to federal regulations, is to meet the special and unique needs of Indian children,'' said Muscogee Creek Nation tribal member Virginia Thomas, JOM program director for the Muscogee Creek Nation and president of the National Johnson O'Malley Association.

What is different about JOM is that its ''special and unique needs'' are determined not by the school boards, but instead through parent committees that each JOM program is required to have, as well as completing need assessments where parents have a say in what their children need to complete for the school year.

''It empowers the Indian communities and Indian parents to design a program specifically for their own community,'' Thomas said. ''Every community that has a JOM program is different. Some communities have just a cultural program, which is like a language program. Some have an academic program. Some are tutoring before and after school. Some, because of limited funds, just provide supplies or incentive items.''

Because JOM is a federal program, how much money the program gets - or if the program will exist at all - is determined by the federal budget. These numbers have been drastically reduced over the past 13 years due to a number of contributing factors. The first of these factors is that the BIA has not issued a student count for all of its JOM programs since 1994. Because of this, if a school district has seen an increase of Native students since this count, each school district still only gets money based on the 1994 records.

Thomas said that in 1994, her program had 10,998 students; currently, it has more than 15,000 students.

''When the bureau divides the money up, they are based on your 1994 student count,'' Thomas said. ''We have a student-count freeze and limited funding. We have limited funding because the president sees a stagnant number. He sees some of it maintains itself and there's no growth. He and a lot of the Congress are unaware that we're stagnant because that's what we were told to do by the bureau. They no longer take our count. We're in the midst right now of trying to restore that student count.''

Another contributing factor is the White House Office of Management and Budget, which has attempted to cut JOM out of the federal budget for the last two fiscal years (Congress has placed it back in the federal budget due to JOM lobbying efforts). In 1994, Thomas said JOM funding was at $24 million, but has seen a sharp decrease since then. For fiscal year 2006, the JOM budget was $16 million. Currently, Thomas said, the U.S. House of Representatives is offering to replace JOM funding at $16.7 million and the U.S. Senate is offering $14 million. But before anything can be finalized, ''they have to come to a happy medium,'' Thomas said.

One criticism that is leveled at the JOM program by federal lawmakers and others opposed to the program is that it is a duplication of Title VII funding, which gives money to school districts for the education of American Indians, Native Hawaiians and Alaska Natives. But the Johnson O'Malley Handbook, issued by the BIA, clearly states that JOM ''shall supplement, and not supplant Federal, State and local funds.''

Thomas emphasized that one of these differences is that committees involved with Title VII programs can only advise, whereas with JOM, parents actually decide how the money should be spent.

''According to the federal regulations, we can't duplicate,'' Thomas said. ''We are supplemental, which means they don't understand the regulations. The regulation is very clear that we cannot be the main program - we can only supplement. What we're trying to do now is prove to them that we are totally different from Title VII. The major difference is that we have parental input that is used and not just advisory.''

Sullivan, who has seen his JOM program funds cut by 25 percent in the past year alone, has had to seek additional ways to fund the Anadarko Indian Education program.

''The best way is to continue just to be adaptive, to try new things, be innovative and develop partnerships that will create new projects,'' Sullivan said. ''You'll be able to make your funding go further if you partner with organizations that have funding. You're able to work with each other, not only with colleges and universities, but work with community groups, faith-based organizations, or any kind of organization that you can work together and find a common mission.''

Thomas said that for tribes with large gaming revenues, such as the Muscogee Creek Nation, JOM programs have been capable of handling federal budget cuts. But for those tribes that cannot give additional support to its JOM programs, it means that the programs cannot continue, which Thomas said was ''not equitable.''

''Last year, it's kind of sad, because every week I got a call from another tribe saying, 'Virginia, we're shutting down. We have no money,''' she said. ''What do you do? There are some of us who are able to maintain the lateness of the money, the zeroing out of the budget; and then other tribes who are just as deserving of the funds had to shut down.''

For those JOM directors like Thomas and Sullivan, the struggle between being creative with the money available, anxiety over when OMB issues its proposed budget and educating lawmakers is the current reality of helping Native students achieve their academic and cultural goals.

''JOM is bringing them up to the level - not above,'' Thomas said about the JOM goal for Native students. ''JOM does not think, 'We're better than you, we're going to give our kids better things.' We're just trying to bring our kids up to the level so they have the equal opportunity to achieve as all the other students.''