A U.S. Senate report from 1969 describes the federal government’s failure to provide an effective education for Native American children as a “national tragedy and a national disgrace” that has “condemned the [American Indian] to a life of poverty and despair.”
Nearly 50 years later, little has changed, in the view of advocates, lawmakers, and tribal leaders alike. Graduation rates in Indian Country are among the lowest of all student subgroups, and there’s a laundry list of schools in need of significant repairs, some of which lack essentials like heat and running water.
While the vast majority of Native American children attend traditional public schools run by local districts, members of Congress and the Obama administration—both of which have admitted to shouldering some blame for the current situation—are pressuring the Bureau of Indian Education to right its flailing operations at the schools the BIE oversees on or near American Indian reservations.
But since the bureau unveiled its blueprint for reorganizing last year, adjustments to its operations have been slow going, prompting some to question whether it will work. After all, the BIE, which is overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior, has been beleaguered for decades by rampant staff turnover, lack of expertise, and financial mismanagement. In the last 36 years, it’s cycled through 33 directors.
“Questions have been raised about whether this will address the fundamental problems facing the system or simply rearrange the chairs at the department,” Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., said May 14 during a hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives that addressed the BIE’s shortcomings. “Questions have also been raised about whether this reorganization is being done in a timely manner or being delayed by the same bureaucratic wrangling that has plagued these schools for decades.”
Meanwhile, with Republicans in Congress focused on reducing the deficit and pruning the budget for federal agencies and programs, there’s little new money to be directed toward the problems.
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