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Reform of Native schools finally passes Senate

WASHINGTON ? The promise to improve Native schools may finally be kept.

After more than two years of tribal meetings, Committee hearings and debates, the Senate finally passed the "Native American Education Improvement Act of 2001." The legislation includes a comprehensive set of reforms that address all areas of BIA and tribally operated schools including accreditation, accountability, the recruitment of Indian teachers, and the construction of Indian schools. The bill has now been sent to President Bush for his approval.

Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), Vice-Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, was the bill's sponsor. As the former chairman of the committee he held numerous hearings on school construction, education standards and Indian education.

"As a former teacher and one who knows all too well the problems faced by Indian youngsters, I strongly believe that education holds the key to individual accomplishment, the promotion of developed Native communities and real self-determination," Campbell said. "I believe that the Native American Education Improvement Act of 2001 is legislation that improves the conditions and operations of Bureau and tribally operated schools."

Campbell said the bill would provide standards and accreditation for Indian schools, as well as provide local educational authorities with the flexibility to design and implement school reforms, without what he calls unproductive and often redundant federal regulations. The bill also includes key school construction provisions, early childhood development programs, and family literacy programs.

BIA and tribally controlled schools across the country have been plagued for years by under-funding. In many instances the result has been a poor learning environment, but in some cases it has even resulted in dangerous building conditions for Indian students.

"Anyone who has visited Indian schools knows that it is nearly impossible for teachers to teach and for children to learn in these facilities," Campbell said. "With this bill, we lay the foundation for a system of identifying crumbling, drafty and dangerous schools and ultimately building new ones."

There are approximately 600,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in K-12 programs in the United States. Of this total, less than 10 percent, or 50,000, are served by the BIA. They are found in 185 K-12 schools located in 23 states throughout the country, many of which are on Indian reservations. While these schools represent a small portion of the overall population, the average condition of schools within this group is surprisingly poor.

The other 75 percent of the students, some 450,000, are served by Office of Indian Education programs through the Department of Education. The OIE administers 1,200 programs in 43 states with direct funding to local education agencies. The remaining 100,000 students either have no access to Indian education programs or attend private schools.

Campbell's bill also maximizes participation by tribal governments and Indian parents by requiring that major actions undertaken under the Act be done in consultation with tribes. The President is expected to sign the bill into law.