Keeping our promise to American Indian children

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The right to attend a good school should be the birthright of every child
in America. When tribal nations negotiated treaties with the U.S.
government and surrendered portions of their ancestral lands more than a
century-and-a-quarter ago, the United States government promised to help
provide the descendants of all American Indians with education, health
care, housing, and other basic necessities of life, forever. Sadly, our
nation has failed to live up to that promise.

Education must be a cornerstone for economic development in American Indian
communities. Yet, Republicans in Congress and the Bush administration have
routinely failed to provide schools in Indian country with the resources
they need to provide American Indian children with the education they
deserve. Funding for teachers, technology and critical projects is often
slow to arrive or insufficient. Schools that are identified as needing
improvement under the No Child Left Behind law are not provided the
assistance they are supposed to get to help every child succeed in school.

American Indian children face many unique challenges as they go to school
in regions that too often lack basic necessities and where jobs are scarce.
Too many Native children must attend schools in crumbling and unsafe
buildings. During my travels in South Dakota, I have seen schools managed
by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) where children had to place trashcans
beneath the holes in the roofs to catch the rain. I've been to BIA schools
in which cold winds whipped through broken windows. I visited a school,
which has since been replaced, in which neither the furnace nor the
bathroom plumbing worked.

The Cheyenne Eagle Butte School and dormitories on the Cheyenne River Sioux
Reservation in South Dakota were built by the BIA around 1960. The floor
tiles in both the school and the dormitory contain asbestos - a known cause
of lung cancer and emphysema. To date, the BIA's "remediation" efforts
consist of recommending that the school "keep the boiler room door shut"
and keep the floors waxed so the tiles won't chip and flake.

In 2000, when he was running for President, then-Governor Bush met with
tribal leaders in New Mexico and promised to invest $1 billion to fix
crumbling BIA schools. Yet, the President proposed a budget for 2005 that
cuts funding for Indian school construction for the second year in a row.
This policy is wrong and has adversely impacted countless American Indian
children.

A recent audit by the Interior Department's Inspector General concerning
the BIA school construction program revealed some of the consequences of
under-funding school construction in Indian country. The audit found that
Indian children are being forced to try to learn, and their teachers are
trying to teach, in schools that put them at "undue risk" of injury because
"no one in the BIA ensures that school buildings are not occupied" until
safety hazards are corrected. This report also found that 30 percent of the
school construction and repair projects it reviewed failed to meet the
BIA's own goal of completing design and construction within three years.

The Inspector General made nine recommendations that it said could
strengthen the BIA school construction program and increase the program's
benefits for American Indians. Those nine recommendations were included in
a draft copy of the report the Inspector General gave to BIA officials for
comment.

Incredibly, despite being given an extended deadline, Bureau officials
failed to respond to the draft. When the report was released, it noted that
"all nine recommendations are considered unresolved."

I don't know why the BIA failed to even acknowledge those nine
recommendations for improving the Indian school construction program. But I
know that it is unacceptable. No Indian child should have to attend school
in a crumbling building without heat, water or other basic services. Yet
the Bush administration's continued inaction and unwillingness to fund and
support BIA school construction projects has made a bad situation even
worse.

Unfortunately, dilapidated school facilities are not the only hurdle
educators in Indian country and American Indian children are asked to
overcome. When President Bush passed the No Child Left Behind Act,
advocates of the law claimed the new law would identify schools that need
improvement, and provide those schools with the support needed to ensure
that every student can succeed.

However, as the law has been implemented, tribes and tribal educators from
South Dakota, as well as several national organizations - including the
National Indian Education Association - have shared several major concerns
with me regarding the impact of the new law on Indian schools. Many schools
served by the BIA have found that the additional funding and technical
assistance promised in the new law have been slow to materialize. And while
a number of schools have been identified as needing improvement, educators
tell me that guidance regarding the development and implementation of
improvement plans has too often been unclear or inconsistent.

Teachers tell me that helping students learn about their Native culture and
language is critically important for keeping students interested in school
and giving them hope for the future. Yet many of the teachers at schools
controlled by the BIA tell me that some aspects of the No Child Left Behind
law are not culturally suited to Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota students and
teachers. They are concerned that efforts to adapt curricula so they are
culturally relevant will be abandoned, at great cost to our young people.

At my request, Congress recently held hearings to investigate the impact of
No Child Left Behind in Indian country. While these hearings were a step in
the right direction, we must continue our efforts and ensure that our
schools have the resources they need to provide all American Indian
children with the first-class education they need and deserve.

I have learned from Indian friends that in traditional Oceti Sakowin
(Sioux) culture, the wellbeing of children should be society's top
priority. Today, that means ensuring a high-quality education so that the
next generation has every opportunity to succeed. But when we deny schools
the resources they need to comply with the No Child Left Behind Act, or
neglect Native cultures and language, and when we force our children to
attend school in rundown buildings, we deny them the opportunities they
deserve. The federal government has promised American Indians a quality
education and I will continue to do everything I can to ensure our
government honors this obligation.

Tom Daschle, a Democrat, is the senior senator from South Dakota and serves
as the Senate Minority Leader. In addition to his leadership post, Daschle
also serves as a member of the Agriculture, Finance and Rules committees.
In past Congresses, he has served on the Veterans Affairs, Indian Affairs
and Ethics committees. Daschle is a native of Aberdeen, S.D.