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Native Children Left Behind

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Every parent in Indian country should be aware of President Bush's 2008 budget proposal to cut funding for critical education programs. Tribes, on behalf of their youngest members, must fight measures to eliminate critical funding for educational mainstays: the Johnson O'Malley program and Indian Head Start. These long-standing programs are specifically targeted to address the unique needs of Indian children and their families. To lose them would devastate the great strides our students have made and are making in education.

In near-constant danger is the 73-year-old JOM program. It is an undeniable institution within Indian education. Funding has steadily decreased for decades. For the third consecutive year, the domestic policy-challenged Bush administration has requested either drastic reductions or eliminations in funding. Citing duplicative federal programs as justification for its request, the administration is again forcing a tactic that was already determined in 2006 to be ''completely unfounded'' by the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, the National Congress of American Indians, the National Indian Education Association, and just about every administrator and educator working in Indian country. Funding for JOM was restored then, but anyone bearing witness to the administration's audacity during its final act knows there is no guarantee that even the most integral, beneficial programs will survive.

At $12 million (down from $16 million in 2006 and $24 million in 1994), the JOM program provides supplementary funds specifically for Indian students beginning at age 3 through grade 12 who attend public schools. It helps them stay in school and to achieve personal and academic success. Among the wealth of academic services made possible by JOM are culturally based tutoring, testing fee aid, books and other reading materials, college preparation classes, computer equipment, and eyeglasses and contacts. Physical education is also a major part of the program. Athletic equipment, even entire teams or leagues are often funded solely by tribes' JOM funds. It is a leveler for disadvantaged school children, providing opportunities that would otherwise be out of reach.

Because it is the only federal funding program that allows for cooperative planning within communities, JOM is a popular way to enhance tribal education. The program is very much ingrained within the physiological and emotional development of Indian children. The program allows Indian families to experience opportunities that underfunded tribal school systems could not afford. Imagine little girls attending ballet class every week in their school gym, or teens gathering after school for volleyball or softball games, or incentive trips to museums and cultural events, or college visits and Native-language tutors. These are the real-life benefits our children receive through JOM. It is a shame that the federal powers that be fail to see the intrinsic value of this particular program to their well-being.

Also moving through Congress now is the Improving Head Start Act, which revises and reauthorizes Head Start programs. The program has been invaluable to early childhood development in Indian country. The National Head Start Association reports that American Indian and Alaska Native programs began in 1965 with 43 grantees in 14 states. Today there are operations in some 27 states serving more than 22,000 children ages 3 - 5, and many infants and toddlers. Head Start programs are encouraged to incorporate Native languages and culture into curriculum goals. The basic elements of Head Start - education, health, parental involvement and social services - are geared to serve low-income families and communities that would not have access to such assistance.

Currently only 2.7 percent of Head Start funding is allocated to Indian and Alaska Native programs, which the NIEA states is ''inadequate to address the impact of poverty and economic disparities on Indian reservations and Indian Head Start programs.'' For this reason, education and Indian organizations have urged an increase, to 4 percent, to mitigate the effects of a poverty rate on Indian reservations that is three times the national average, and an ever-growing population.

No Child Left Behind is also up for reauthorization in the 110th Congress. President Bush's fiscal year '08 budget proposes to underfund NCLB by more than $10 billion, for a cumulative cut of $70 billion since its enactment in 2001. The initial goal of NCLB was standard-based education reform, but the legislation has met with controversy since day one. Although Indian education is acknowledged in Title VII of the law, Bush's failure to commit to adequate funding to programs in Indian country utterly diminishes the intent.

JOM and other Indian education initiatives are meant to help meet the federal trust obligation to Indian tribes. This sort of commitment, though not formalized by statutes or treaties, by the United States is being extended to people around the world. The people of Iraq might take note, for example. According to the State Department, ''the United States remains firmly committed to the political, economic, and social reconstruction of Iraq.'' While too many schools in Indian country are consistently deemed substandard, the United States has built and renovated more than 3,000 Iraqi schools during the course of its ongoing war on terror. While that is certainly honorable, it is also necessary to note that the American Embassy compound in Iraq will be the largest of its kind in the world, according to Associated Press reports. The presence of a lavish facility located within the U.S.-controlled, fortified ''Green Zone'' makes critics wary. It is ''seen by Iraqis as an indication of who actually exercises power in their country,'' says the International Crisis Group, a nongovernmental organization working to prevent and resolve deadly conflict.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Pentagon is spending about $200 million each day in Iraq. The Washington Post reports that since Sept. 11, 2001, ''the government has allocated about $503 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan and anti-terrorism operations - with about 70 percent going to the war in Iraq ... Bush has asked for an additional $245 billion for war spending, including the $100 billion in the emergency supplemental bill now at issue.''

The ease with which the government has allocated funds for the war on terror and its resulting contract opportunities contradicts everything Indian tribes know about the arduous federal appropriations process - that fiscal conservatism and accountability should be rewarded, that program success and progress should require thorough justification, and that those people in need of basic programs and services who actually live in the United States should remain a priority.