President Obama’s budget request will include $1 billion for American Indian schools next year, including millions of dollars to renovate crumbling buildings and connect remote classrooms via broadband Internet.
The proposal, administration officials announced this week, would add another $150 million to current funding levels for the Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees nearly 200 schools serving more than 40,000 children across 23 states.
The budget request includes more than $130 million for school construction, an increase of nearly $60 million over this year. The money is meant to help address decrepit facilities that have forced students to learn in classrooms that in many cases fall short of health and safety standards.
“It’s hard not to feel sad or angry when I look at the conditions of the facilities and what we expect of staff in serving these students,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Thursday in a call with reporters. She said that even with the proposed increase — the largest for the BIE since the 2009 federal stimulus funds — there won’t be enough money to address all the buildings that need fixing.
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 BIE’s backlog of maintenance and repair issues.
Besides construction, the Obama budget includes more funds to expand broadband access at BIE schools, expand scholarships for post-secondary education, boost basic operations funding and help tribes deliver their own education programs. It would also add $50 million to Native Youth Community Projects, a grant program that allows communities to identify and address the most pressing problems for students inside and outside of school.
Jewell said she is optimistic that the Republican-dominated Congress will approve the funds despite the partisan gridlock on Capitol Hill. “I think there is good potential for agreement between the administration and both chambers, both sides of the aisle,” she said.“There is no question, no debate actually, that we are not serving Indian children well.”
Young people in Indian Country are some of the most at-risk in the nation. Many grow up in communities wracked by poverty, unemployment and substance abuse. More than one-fifth of Native people older than 25 don’t have a high school diploma; of those who do go on to college, only 39 percent earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.
“Native youth are in a state of crisis,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “That lack of opportunity is simply unacceptable.”
Administration officials said the president was inspired to boost funds for Native education in part by his visit last year to the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, where he and his wife met with young people who spoke about how drugs, violence and poverty had touched their lives.
“Michelle and I ended up staying longer than we had planned, and we got a lot of hugs in, and we walked away shaken because some of these kids were carrying burdens no young person should ever have to carry,” Obama said in December at the Tribal Nations Conference.
“We want to give those young people and young Native Americans like them the support they deserve.”
Obama is scheduled to release his full budget next week, and it will include additional proposals that will affect Native youth and Native communities, administration officials said.