WASHINGTON, D.C. - Tribal education facilities in most cases are in the worst condition of any school system in the nation with a construction and maintenance backlog of nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars.
And each year, the need becomes greater testified at a hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on April 26.
"When people involved in Indian education meet, one universal topic of discussion and concern is the terrible state of facilities in general," said Dr. Roger Bordeaux, executive director of the Association of Community Tribal Schools and superintendent of Tiospa Zina Tribal School in Agency Village, S.D.
"Each year the BIA request for upkeep of education facilities is over $70 million less than needed. The bureau reports a new construction need of 99 facilities, yet only has a priority list for 17."
Dr. Bordeaux said, a congressional report in the 1980s stated that Indian children are educated in facilities "in which federal judges would not allow us to house prisoners." A subsequent report issued by the General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1997, reported schools in a dismal state of repair and "generally in worse condition than other schools nationally... ." Testimony indicated these conditions only intensified in the past decade.
The issue is being profiled in deliberations over the re-authorization of laws which govern administration of the 185 tribal schools. They serve approximately 50,000 Indian students across the nation. The Senate committee has been working with tribal governments, organizations, and the BIA on draft language for new legislation.
As part of the re-authorization process, tribes are looking for greater control through strengthening education functions conducted under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act.
Carmen Taylor, executive director of the National Indian School Board Association, said the BIA has created a designation, "inherently federal functions," as a class which may not be contracted, thus limiting tribal contract authority.
"Even agreeing with this designation as being an exception to contract authority, the bureau refuses to give us a clear and uniform definition of this term, a listing of the functions, and jobs covered," Taylor said, emphasizing the need for the bureau to consult more closely with tribes.
While tribes hope to reinforce their sovereign status and accountability through improved language under re-authorization, some are working to continue local management of tribal grant and charter schools.
"Having all grant funds flow through the tribe often creates more bureaucracy, inefficiency and rigidity," said Dr. Mark Sorenson, executive director of the Native American Grant School Association, an organization which represents grant and charter schools on lands of five of the largest tribes in Arizona and New Mexico.
Questioned about grant and charter school authority and its effect on tribal authority, Sorenson assured the committee that support for local control by grant schools is not a threat to tribal authority. Under current law tribes have direct control of tribal grant schools with the requirement that every school must be sanctioned by the tribe, he said.
Senators Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., Daniel Inoyue, D-Hawaii, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., all reacted strongly to the issues presented and restated the committee commitment to Indian education and the crisis in school repair and construction.
"We are a committee that is determined to do something about the state of Indian schools, but we are just a piece of the puzzle ... We need to do a lot more to solve this problem," Dorgan said. " What is happening here is not only unfair, but an abrogation of the government's responsibility."
Committee Chairman Campbell expressed his continued interest in the bonding issue and the ability of bonds to provide added financial help.
"I think co-financing and bonding needs to be explored because current appropriations are not meeting the needs."
The Senate is expected to begin floor debate on re-authorization soon. The new legislation will address provisions contained in Public Laws 95-561 and 100-297, both of which address elementary and secondary education for Indian students.