Official Washington has rarely paid much attention to the Bureau of Indian Education, a long-dysfunctional corner of the federal bureaucracy that is responsible for overseeing nearly 200 schools serving approximately 50,000 Native American children in 23 states.
But that might be changing.
President Obama is seeking to boost funding for Indian education by $150 million, including nearly $60 million to begin fixing dozens of tribal school facilities that have languished in disrepair for decades. The funding request is part of a broader administration effort to improve lives for Native American youth.
The push comes as Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), the powerful chairman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, has sought to highlight the BIE’s management troubles with two hearings in recent weeks.
Kline, who recently visited a crumbling tribal school facility in his home state, is urging his fellow Republicans to fund the president’s requested budget increase, calling the investment imperative to ensure that Native American students can go to school in safe buildings.
“You’ve got collapsing roofs, leaking roofs, buckling floors, exposed wires, popping circuit breakers, gas leaks. That’s totally unacceptable,” Kline said at a May 14 hearing on the government’s management of Native American schools. “You can’t be well-educated, in my opinion, when you’re attending school wearing your coat, wearing your mittens and hoping that the blanket keeps out the 30-degree below-zero air.”
Washington’s interest in the BIE comes in the wake of a damning four-part series about the deplorable condition of tribal school buildings, published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune in late 2014. The series, by the newspaper’s editorial board, called on the Obama administration and Congress to do something about the hazardous conditions of dozens of neglected school buildings.
“Kids shivering in thin-walled classrooms or studying under leaky roofs year after year aren’t getting the education they need or deserve,” the newspaper, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, reported in one of the stories. “With the larger community’s visible neglect all around them, they receive the wrong message about the value of education.”
Last year, the federal government reported that about one-third of BIE schools were in poor condition and would require $1.3 billion to be made acceptable. The same report estimated that another $1 billion would be needed to deal with the BIE’s backlog of maintenance and repair issues.
The BIE has undergone several reorganizations in recent years. Director Monty Roessel — the agency’s 33rd director in 36 years — is trying again to reform it. Roessel told lawmakers at the May 14 House committee hearing that he believes his effort will succeed where others have failed because he is focused on two key goals: improving school buildings and improving instruction.
Roessel said that if Congress approves Obama’s budget request in fiscal 2016, the BIE will be able to fix the schools it put on a priority list more than a decade ago — in 2004. He said his agency is putting together its next priority list and hopes to release a plan for tackling its remaining decrepit buildings sometime this summer.
Fifty-eight buildings are currently listed in poor condition, which means it is more cost-effective to replace them than it would be to rebuild. “I agree it’s one of the biggest frustrations that we have,” he said.
The Department of Defense also has many schools in need of repair. In 2010, the department began a $5 billion effort to fix or rebuild 47 of its 181 schools by 2021, according to the Star Tribune. But funding for new BIE schools totaled just $39 million during the past four years — less than the cost of one of the Defense Department’s elementary schools, the Star Tribune reported.
The federal government guaranteed that it would ensure Native American children had access to education in many of the treaties it signed with tribes during the 19th century as settlers pushed west across the country.
But the BIE, part of the Interior Department, has often faltered.
It has been plagued by limited staff capacity and constant leadership turnover, poor communication and inconsistent accountability, according to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office. Complicating its efforts are the poverty and remoteness of many tribal schools.
Today, about 8 percent of all Native American children attend BIE schools, and they trail their Native American peers who attend public schools — as well as the national average — on almost every academic measure.
Read the Star Tribune series: