Members of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee slammed Bush administration officials at an oversight hearing on Thursday, questioning their commitment to Indian education.
Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee, led off the criticism with his portrayal of a do-nothing administration. He said little appears to have been accomplished
since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the law that calls for improvement in public and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools that educate more than 500,000 Native children.
"It's going to take you until July 2006 to find out what the construction and transportation needs are for these schools?" he told Jim Cason and Ed Parisian, the Interior Department's witnesses, in reference to an NCLB report issued over a year ago. "Please."
"It's interesting that you were testifying [about] all the things you're gonna do to comply with NCLB," he then told Victoria Vasques of the Education Department. "What have you done so far to implement NCLB?"
When Vasques, the director of the Office of Indian Education, started to responded, she was interrupted. "So you've had meetings? Good," McCain said in an abrupt tone. He also
questioned how the NCLB process was being conducted.
"You are working with governors to determine the needs on Indian reservations?" he asked. Vasques pointed out that the overwhelming majority of Indian children attend public schools that are not part of the BIA system.
Democrats on the committee were equally displeased with the administration's performance. They cited repeated cuts in the budget for tribal colleges, construction of new BIA schools and other education programs.
"I've heard the testimony here," commented Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-North Dakota), the vice chairman, "and some of it doesn't sound to me like it's in English."
Tribal witnesses also had harsh words, centering on the budget cuts and the BIA reorganization.
David Beaulieu, the president of the National Indian Education Association, said resources at the
agency's education office have been reduced under the guise of trust reform.
"Our constituency is becoming ever more alarmed," he told the committee, "about their concerns with the statute and what is happening to Indian education, generally."
Roger Bordeaux, the superintendent of the Tiospa Zina Tribal School on the Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, testified the reorganization is hurting Indian students.
He said he was "disturbed" by Cason's suggestion to add more high-paid senior executive service employees to the BIA.
"I would be willing to bet part of my salary that that's not going to make a difference over time," he said. He said the Bush administration is preparing to take $3.4 million from Indian education to hire more management staff.
Cason, the deputy secretary at Interior and the acting assistant secretary for Indian affairs, defended his department's commitment to Indian education. He said the White House so far has provided $1.5 billion to fix crumbling BIA schools, although he acknowledged a slow-down because only nine of the 25 replacement projects that were funded have been completed.
"If you go back and look at it historically, the president has placed a huge amount of emphasis on additional school construction," he testified.
Vasques, whose budget has remained constant since 2001, defended her work with the BIA and states to implement the reforms of the NCLB. But she said true progress needs to come from Indian Country.
"Whenever I go out and speak, my number one challenge for those who will listen is for tribal leaders to put education on their agenda," she said. "I know it's our number one agenda but I don't know if I feel it's the number one agenda out there when I'm working in the field."
Although McCain appeared exasperated with the government's testimony, he said he was willing to wait a few more months for answers. He told the witnesses to be called back for another hearing
sometime in the fall.
At an oversight hearing on Indian education a year ago, retired Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado), the former chairman of the committee, said he asked the General Accountability Office for an investigation into the reorganization's impact. At the time, he cited a list of complaints he received about the BIA's actions.
"We have no way of knowing, in the committee, if these accusations have any merit or not and maybe they don't. Maybe some are just disgruntled employees," Campbell said on June 16, 2004. "But I don't take them lightly."
It is not clear what the status of the investigation is or when a report might be issued. Campbell retired at the end of 2004.
Witness List/Testimony: Oversight Hearing on Indian Education
(June 16, 2005)
National Indian Education Association - http://www.niea.org
of Indian Education Programs, BIA - http://www.oiep.bia.edu