SAFETY Act seeks to improve Indian schools and tribal colleges

Students, parents and staff at the Cove Day School in Arizona hosted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Bureau of Indian Education officials on January 14, 2016. The school, located on the Navajo Nation, will finally receive replacement funds after waiting on a priority list for more than 10 years. Photo from Navajo Nation OPVP Russell Begaye And Jonathan Nez / Facebook

The Obama administration and Congress are finally putting more money into Indian schools and a bill introduced in the Senate on Wednesday aims to build on that momentum.

The Safe Academic Facilities and Environments for Tribal Youth Act, or SAFETY Act, is sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington). The two lawmakers, who sit on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, believe Native youth are entitled to learn in safe places.

"We can’t prepare students for the 21st century economy in deteriorating 20th century classrooms," Tester, who serves as vice chair of the committee, said in a press release.

"The future of Indian Country depends on the education and development of Native youth," added Cantwell, a former chair of the committee. "These children and young adults already face significant challenges – crumbling schools, classrooms and lack of educational resources should not be another roadblock to success for them."

To help improve the situation, the bill directs the requires the Bureau of Indian Education and the White House Office of Management and Budget to come up with a 10-year plan to bring Indian schools into "good" condition. Currently, 78 of 183 BIE schools -- nearly 43 percent -- are considered "poor," or have been in operation more than 50 years, or are placing students in portable buildings rather than permanent structures. Some facilities meet all three conditions.

The roof at a Bureau of Indian Education school has sprung multiple leaks after being installed in 2010 at a cost of $3.5 million. Photo from Government Accountability Office

The goal is to bring the BIE more in line with the practices of the Department of Defense Education Activity. That agency oversees 194 schools around the world and is completing a $3.7 billion project that saw renovations or replacements at 134 of those facilities.

The scope of the military's effort completely overshadows the funds spent in Indian Country. As part of the fiscal year 2016 omnibus appropriations bill that became law last month, the BIE is spending just $45 million to replace two schools.

Another five schools are due to receive replacement funds in the coming years as the BIE develops a new school construction priority list, the first since 2004. But even the agency acknowledges that it would take more than 23 years to bring all of the schools in “poor” condition into fair or good condition at the the current rate of funding.

The SAFETY Act seeks to jump start the process by bringing tribes into the fold. They would be able to enter into agreements with the BIE for school construction projects and would be required to contribute at least 25 percent of the cost.

The Tribal School Construction Demonstration Program would run for five years and would complement but not compete with the BIE's construction priority list, according to provisions of the bill. The initiative could open the doors to more replacement projects in Indian Country, partly because schools on the Navajo Nation have dominated the process due to the large number of aging facilities on the reservation. Of the 10 schools competing for five spots on the BIE's new list, seven are on Navajo lands.

The College of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin. Photo from Facebook

But new schools aren't the only focus of the SAFETY Act. The bill also seeks to improve tribal college facilities, which are typically ignored due to the BIE's focus on younger students. Tribal colleges and universities would be able to enter into construction agreements and would not be responsible for sharing any of the costs.

"The SAFETY Act will help to address one of the most basic needs for any education institution and in so doing, will enable TCUs to provide more American Indians and Alaska Natives the opportunity to access and complete a degree program in a field that will help our tribes grow their Native workforce and advance the economies of Indian Country," Carrie Billy, the president and CEO of the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, said in the lawmakers' press release.

Finally, the bill focuses on providing more opportunities for teachers who work at BIE institutions or in public schools with large numbers of Indian students. Tribes, tribal housing agencies and Indian education organizations would be able to secure grants for teacher housing if the measure becomes law.

According to the Bronner report from 2012, the BIE needs at least $3 billion to replace old schools and make overdue repairs at other facilities. An earlier report from the No Child Left Behind School Facilities and Construction Negotiated Rulemaking Committee said $1.3 billion was needed just for replacement.

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Further Actions on GAO Recommendations Needed to Address Systemic Management Challenges with Indian Education (April 22, 2015)
Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending (November 13, 2014)

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