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Following the Money: Indian Education and Community Building

Funding in the Interior and Environment Appropriations Bill and the Health, Human Services and Education bill

August 21, 2017


Indian students in schools owned by the Bureau of Indian Education are likely to arrive each day to a place that is leaking, rotting, corroded, too cold or too hot, and poorly furnished to support learning. How are these students supposed to build a future for themselves on such a foundation?

Indian Schools – Where Students Learn. Since 2015, faith groups have joined with other Native education advocates to promote stronger funding support for repair and replacement of schools owned by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). See a background story published in May 2016, and a short story from June 2017 on current budget deliberations.

In spite of the 2011 report of a consultative rule-making body, which identified a total need of $1.3 billion to bring all Indian schools up to an acceptable standard, funding has lagged far below necessary levels. In 2014, the BIE’s school replacement account had fallen to just $2 million. In 2015, $39 million was provided, and the President proposed $58.7 million for FY2016. Faith groups joined the National Congress of American Indians in requesting $263.4 million for that year –- one fifth of the total cost of renovation and replacement –- so that the schools could be brought up to standard in a 5-year period. Recent appropriations have offered about $138 million per year, but still progress is slow.

"Portable" building - Pierre Indian Learning Center in SD

'Portable' building at Pierre Indian Learning Center in SD

A September 2016 report by the Inspector General (IG) of the Department of the Interior (the seventh report on this topic by the IG) enumerates continued safety and environmental problems in multiple schools, naming poor communication among offices and failure to report safety and construction hazards among the hurdles in the way of providing up-to-standard schools. In the 13 schools that it examined, the IG found structural concerns and condemned buildings; asbestos, radon, and mold; electrical issues; grounds and drainage problems; damaged and deteriorated roofs; plumbing, corrosion, and moisture damage; problems with fire safety systems, and reliance on temporary structures as permanent solutions.

The President proposed no new funding for school construction in the 2018 budget or in the next five years. The House Appropriations Committee approved $138.25 million for 2018 in the Interior- Environment appropriations bill. About a third of the funds are to be used for replacement of the 10 schools that were selected last year through process described in the 2011 report of the consultative rule-making committee. About $12 million is tagged for replacement of individual buildings on a campus, including the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig alternative high school in Minnesota, which has been housed for years in a pole-barn. The remainder is for improvement and repair of school facilities and school employee housing.

Support for Public Schools In or Near Indian Lands. Only about 7 percent of Native American children attend BIE-owned schools. The other 93 percent attend public schools on or near their reservations, typically in rural counties with very limited tax bases, or in urban areas. Congress has made funds available to assist these schools and to support cultural education of Native Americans in the public school environment primarily through the Johnson-O’Malley program. This program is responsible for contributing to the education of about 41,000 American Indian and Alaska Native children at 183 elementary and secondary schools on 64 reservations in 23 states.

The House Interior-Environment Appropriations bill includes $14.8 million for the program, approximately the same amount as has been provided for each of the past two years. Funds for the Johnson-O’Malley program were frozen in 1995. At that time, the program provided approximately $96 per student. That support has eroded to just $76 per student today. Since 2012, congressional committees have urged the BIE to get an accurate count of the number and distribution of students and schools that should qualify for Johnson-O’Malley funds, so that the funds can be applied more equitably. Meanwhile, the youth population has grown significantly. A substantial increase in funding, along with equitable distribution, is warranted. The National Congress of American Indians’ most FY2017 request for this program is $42 million.

Indian Schools – What Students Learn. In all, the Committee appropriated $901.9 million for the BIE, continuing FY2017 levels for tribal education departments, special education programs, early childhood and family development, facilities operation and maintenance, and $500,000 for education in juvenile detention facilities. The bill also includes continuation of scholarship and adult education assistance, post- graduate programs in science and education program management, and improvements in information technology. Tribal Colleges and Universities were allocated a continuation of FY2017 funding, plus a one-time investment of forward funding to allow them to make commitments to faculty, staff and students on an academic year basis.

Both the BIE and the federal Department of Education support Native language preservation. In Interior appropriations, the Committee urged Bureau of Indian Education staff to coordinate their programs with those sponsored by the Department of Education (the funding for which appears in the Labor, HHS and Education appropriations bill.) The BIE language programs focus on schools funded through the Bureau.