No Child Left Behind gets a Hearing and a Hammering

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WASHINGTON - Even BIA chief Dave Anderson's favorite themes of education
and youth could not get him before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
June 16 - but at least this time the committee chairman, Sen. Nighthorse
Campbell, refrained from blasting him for absenteeism.

And that may have been just as well, for Anderson offered some of the few
positive thoughts and perhaps the only new ideas at a hearing on the No
Child Left Behind Act of 2001, President George W. Bush's signature
initiative to raise education standards in measurable ways for America's
youth. In written testimony whose silent pages did little to mitigate the
impression that Indian country has little but complaints against NCLB,
Anderson stated that students at BIA (and by extension tribal) schools most
need environments where they are encouraged to excel, personally and
academically.

He called NCLB "an incredible opportunity for the Bureau [of Indian Affairs] and the Indian community to partner and create positive learning
environments that will empower our Native youth."

Anderson has put his staff to work "exploring two important concepts that I
hope will provide sweeping change in the way we view Indian education ...
First, it is my vision that every Bureau-funded school should incorporate a
'Success 101' curriculum into the classroom to encourage student
achievement, leadership, business investment, homeownership, and personal
responsibility. Second, I have asked my staff to develop a pilot program to
work in partnership with a Bureau-funded school to transform its mission
into a Leadership Academy ... We hope to weave both the core academic
curriculum with the personal achievement needs of students by teaching
success strategies, teamworking skills, effective leadership and
communications, and other important life skills. The BIA hopes to establish
partnerships with tribal school, communities and parents to help bring this
concept into the Bureau-funded schools."

The Bush overhaul of federal education holds school districts accountable
for student test results; allows greater flexibility in the use of federal
funds; offers more choices for parents; and emphasizes research-based
instruction. In an executive order in April, the president left no doubt
that Native children have a place within the initiative, but on terms of
their own cultural context. The order "recognizes the unique and culturally
related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students
consistent with the unique political relationship of the Federal government
with Tribal governments."

It also establishes an Interagency Working Group on American Indian and
Alaska Native Education to oversee implementation of the executive order,
with the overall goal of improving Native students' ability to meet the
academic standards of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The act emphasizes measurable progress in reading, science and math by
2013-14, coupled with threats to withhold federal funding from school
districts that fail to show' adequate progress. A great deal of concern
surfaced June 16 to the effect that Indian children tend to excel in other
areas, leading to charges of inflexibility and a "one-size-fits-all"
mentality on the part of the administration.

Indian educators are hardly alone in their complaints; 23 states have filed
formal complaints against NCLB. In many cases, the standards are held to be
an unfunded mandate, as NCLB has been funded at levels far below the
figures authorized by Congress. Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., the Senate
Minority Leader, contends that in three budget requests submitted by Bush
to Congress, NCLB has been underfunded by a total of $26.5 billion.

But BIA-funded schools under Bush have seen an 85 percent increase in their
budget since fiscal year 2001, to $131 million, according to Victoria
Vasques, director of the Office of Indian Education Programs within the
Department of Education.

Still, BIA schools need more funding, said Terry Ben, director of tribal
schools for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw. "There have been a number of
studies conducted over the years of BIA schools. One thing that we have
definitely learned is that education in BIA and tribal schools is
expensive. The per capita cost of educating a student in our schools (BIA
and tribal) is considerably higher than most other publicly funded
schools."

Thanks to its gaming and other enterprises, the Mississippi Choctaw has
been able to invest $35 million in educational financing over a decade. Ben
said the tribe would have no hope of meeting the state NCLB standard if it
relied solely on BIA funding.

Among the reasons for this higher per capita expense at BIA and tribal
schools are the social challenges on reservations, the remote location of
many Native communities, and the high cost of teacher recruitment and
retention.

All this got an extensive airing June 16. Even Campbell jumped on the
bandwagon of bad tidings, noting that he has asked the Office of the
Inspector General to investigate complaints against the Office of Indian
Education Programs. He acknowledged that as the Bush administration's
restructuring of the BIA and education generally has gone forward,
complaints have not been lacking. He said the committee has no idea if the
complaints are justified, but added that an investigation is necessary to
make sure the needs of Indian youth are being met.