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Senate Committee on Indian Affairs puts focus on Indian education bills

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

A dramatic proposal to create a new Indian education agency is on the agenda of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

The Bureau of Indian Education currently falls within the Bureau of Indian Affairs and has been subjected to numerous reorganization and reform plans. Despite the changes, Indian students and their schools continue to fall behind and Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee, believes it's time to create an independent entity, with its own leadership.

“The structure at the Bureau of Indian Education is broken,” Barrasso said last month. “My legislation will ensure that the administrators, teachers, and students from tribal communities are being listened to and that their needs are being met. It is an important first step for better transparency and accountability for schools across Indian Country.”

S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act, or RAISE Act, establishes an Indian Education agency at the Interior Department. It will be overseen by director who will be nominated by the president, rather than hired by the head of the BIA.

That seemingly simple change puts a greater emphasis on the director's position, which has long suffered from high turnover in Republican and Democratic administrations. Until Charles M. “Monty” Roessel, a member of the Navajo Nation, came on board in December 2013, the BIE went without a permanent director for more than a year. His predecessor, Keith Moore, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, was hired after a nearly three-year vacancy.

The RAISE Act also aims to address an issue that has gained significant attention in recent years. A new facilities management director would be in charge of Indian classrooms, dorms and other facilities that are suffering from a billion-dollar plus backlog in replacement and repair.

Congress finally put the school replacement program back on track in 2015 and the BIA is providing $25.3 million to replace two aging schools on the Navajo Nation in the current fiscal year budget. That will close out the last two facilities on the school construction priority list.

The BIA is now creating a new list, the first since 2004. Ten schools are competing for five spots and assistant secretary Larry Roberts told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies last Wednesday that he plans to select the finalists within a matter of weeks.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies March 16 2016

That panel also raised alarms about the BIA's failure to complete Indian school inspections, another safety and maintenance issue. A Government Accountability Office report found that 69 out of 180 institutions were missed in 2015, up from 67 in 2014 and 55 in 2013. In one case, a school and dormitory had 11 failing boilers that weren't fixed for eight months, subjecting students and staff to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide poisoning, the report said.

"This is decades and decades and decades of neglect and failure of the federal government to live up to its obligations," Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said at the hearing last week.

One explanation for the disconnect comes down to management. When asked whether the BIA's safety office -- the Division of Safety and Risk Management -- has any authority over the regional safety officers -- the ones responsible for the inspections -- Melissa Emrey-Arras, the director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security at the GAO, had a simple answer.

"None," Emrey-Arras said. Previously, she told Barrasso's committee in May 2015 that the BIA and the BIE suffers from a "fragmented organization" that hinder their ability to educate Indian students in a safe environment and that's one of the reasons why the chairman introduced his bill.

The Obama administration and Indian Country will get a chance to share their views on the RAISE Act at a hearing on April 6. The committee also plans to take testimony on three other Indian education bills.

A boiler in a Bureau of Indian Affairs classroom failed an inspection in February 2015 because carbon monoxide levels were too high, according to the Government Accountability Office. The level reads 1,267 parts per million (ppm) -- levels above 100 ppm can cause headaches, according to Levels above 1,000 ppm can lead to loss of consciousness after 1 hour of exposure and even death after prolonged exposure. Photo from GAO

S.2304, the Tribal Early Childhood, Education, and Related Services Integration Act, was introduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee on November 18, 2015. The bill creates a demonstration project so tribes, tribal education institutions and tribal organizations can develop early childhood education programs.

"Graduation rates will not improve in Indian Country if students continue to fall behind at the starting line," Tester said. "This bill invests in Native American students, puts them on a path to graduate on time, and better prepares them to launch a successful career."

S.2468, the Safe Academic Facilities and Environments for Tribal Youth Act, was introduced by Tester on January 27. The bill requires the BIE 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 fit into all three categories.

The final item on the agenda is S.2711, the Native American Education Opportunity Act. Introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) on Thursday, the bill would divert some BIE funds into an "education savings account" and that money would give Indian students who live on reservations an alternative to attending a BIE institution.

“It is unconscionable to leave Native American students stranded in failing schools when we can create the option of expanding educational opportunities on Indian reservations now,” McCain said in a press release. “I am proud to introduce this bill that would give Native American parents the option of using BIE funds to pay for private school tuition, tutors, books, and other educational needs through a state-administered education savings account. I believe that encouraging private schools to compete with BIE schools can improve K-12 education, even in the most remote parts of Indian Country.”

The text of the bill is not yet available on but it can be read in full on McCain's website.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing (April 6, 2016)

Government Accountability Office Report:
Key Actions Needed to Ensure Safety and Health at Indian School Facilities (March 10, 2016)

More 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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