Education | Opinion

Carla Mann: Johnson O'Malley needs an accurate student count

The Johnson-O’Malley program helped send Alaska Native youth and elders to a conference. Photo from Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Tribes JOM

President Obama recently visited the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota where he presented a series of Indian Education proposals intended to reform the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). Missing from the President’s proposals, however, are any references to a program that serves over 90% of Indian kids in the U.S., attending public schools and not in BIE schools. That program is the Johnson-O’Malley (JOM) program.

The Johnson-O’Malley Act (which established the JOM program) was enacted in 1934 to allow the Department of the Interior to provide assistance to Indian students in the areas of education, medical attention, agricultural assistance, social welfare, and relief of distress. The aim of the Act was to address findings that Indians needed support to transition from Indian-only settings to general population settings such as the environments found in public schools and in urban areas. Eighty years later, JOM continues to provide critical support to Indian kids – the majority of whom live in impoverished areas with ninety plus percent attending public schools.

The 1934 statute that created the Johnson-O’Malley Act calls for the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to conduct an annual count of eligible Native students. However, the National Johnson-O’Malley Association (NJOMA) - leading non-profit educational organization advocating for JOM - has voted this week to use U.S. Census Data to account for and fund the JOM program as a result of BIA’s long-term failure to conduct a student count and failure to properly manage and account for the JOM program.

The purpose of the JOM program is to meet the specialized and unique educational needs of Indian children attending public and some Tribal schools through the use of supplemental education programs. The JOM program is statutorily defined as a supplemental education program to meet the special and unique needs of Indian children.

JOM allows communities to integrate Native culture, history and language into a child’s curriculum, a proven technique to improve the achievement of Native students. JOM funds may also be used for medical and social needs that interfere with an Indian student’s educational opportunities. The JOM program is a strong resource for communities both on and off the reservation, and is particularly helpful in this day and age when the majority of Native youth do not attend BIA schools.

Prior to 1994, the BIA conducted an annual student count to determine the number of eligible JOM student across the Nation. Lack of coordination in and funding for the BIA led to a freeze on that count for almost two decades until NJOMA successfully lobbied Congress to instruct the BIA to conduct a student count in 2012. The BIA admits the count was flawed and inaccurate.

Without an accurate accounting of the eligible students, we are unable to show growth in the number of students serviced and unable to effectively advocate for more funding for these students. In 2014, Congress once again directed the BIA to conduct a student count and to report the results back by September 30, 2014. To date, there has been no indication from the BIA that they intend to either conduct a count or report anything to Congress.

The BIA may be stagnant, but the JOM program is not. Therefore, it is the opinion of NJOMA that we use data collected from the U.S. Census Bureau regarding Native populations to argue for changes to the numbers that are funded in the program and to move forward with the JOM Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act.

A bipartisan coalition of Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK), Betty McCollum (D-MN) and Don Young (R-AK) have introduced the Johnson-O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4328) which will:
• Codify the operations of the JOM program that have become routine including current eligibility requirements;
• Authorize various program and eligibility modernizations to improve program access, coverage, and utilization;
• Provide a formal authorization for the Supplemental Indian Education program and provide it the same legal standing as other education programs targeted to Native populations (e.g., Title VII, BIE Schools, and Tribal Colleges);
• Establish a baseline funding level of $125 per student per year for the program;
• Authorize tribes and school districts to form consortiums to carry out programming and training activities, and to partner with Tribal colleges and universities; and,
• Require the Secretary of Interior to provide an annual program assessment to the Congress as part of the Department's annual budget submission.

Enactment of H.R. 4328, the Modernization Act, is crucial for JOM to not just thrive but survive in the 21st century. Without proper codification and authorization, JOM faces an almost certain death as a program. Continued years of inadequate funding, lack of formal authorization and ambiguous program activities plague JOM and leave the program vulnerable for extinction. The Modernization Act remedies these problems and more, and provides clear mandates for how the program should be administered, funded, and accounted for.

An accurate student count is the first step in ensuring the survival of the JOM program, and is the first cog in the wheel that is advancing the JOM Modernization Act. Usage of U.S. Census numbers regarding Native populations will allow for more funding to be appropriated to the program as it is verified proof of growth in the number of students served. Without this proof, we are stuck at square one and put in the same posture we were left at in 1995 when the annual student count was frozen.

Carla Mann, member of the Blackfeet/Eastern Shoshone Tribe residing on the Wind River Indian Reservation, is President of the National Johnson O’Malley Association. NJOMA is a national nonprofit, educational organization that continually engages in coalition-building and strives to partner with Indian education supporters around the country.

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