Education | National | Politics

Scandals overshadow Bureau of Indian Education reform efforts

Larry Roberts, the leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, speaks at the National Indian Child Welfare Association's Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect in St. Paul, Minnesota, on April 4, 2016. Photo by Indian Affairs / Twitter

The Bureau of Indian Affairs defended its education initiatives on Wednesday as lawmakers debated whether to take stronger action in the wake of yet another scandal.

The Obama administration has put a greater focus on improving the achievement levels of Indian students and increasing tribal control at the Bureau of Indian Education. But those efforts have been overshadowed by two recent watchdog reports, one which showed that a significant number of Indian schools have been going without inspections for years and another that led to the demotion of the BIE's director due to hiring improprieties.

Larry Roberts, the acting head of the BIA, didn't shy from either controversy in his appearance before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He said last week's removal of Charles M. “Monty” Roessel as the director of the BIE wouldn't hinder an ongoing reorganization of the agency.

"We are moving full-steam ahead," Roberts told Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee. "It will have no effect."

At the same time, Roberts admitted that the BIE has to "rebuild" trust in Indian Country as a result of yet another change in leadership. The position at one point sat vacant for nearly three years during the Obama era.

"It's going to take a lot of one-on-one conversations with tribal leadership and we're actively doing that right now," Roberts testified. The new acting director -- Ann Marie Bledsoe Downes, a member of the Winnebago Tribe -- is going to New Mexico next week as part of that effort, he said.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Hearing

With regard to safety for students, Roberts reiterated a promise he made on Capitol Hill just three weeks ago. He said that the BIA will inspect every school after missing 69 out of 180 institutions in 2015, up from 67 missed in 2014 and 55 missed in 2013, figures that were disclosed by the Government Accountability Office.

Roberts also said the BIA is responding to concerns raised in the report by ensuring that regional directors will be held accountable for failing to inspect all of the schools in their purview. The GAO noted that some regions have been slacking as far back as 2008.

But when pressed by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), Roberts made a seemingly startling admission.

"No one has been fired," Roberts told McCain, whose state is home to a large number of schools that were never inspected.

According to the GAO, the Western Region, which includes Arizona, missed all 23 schools in 2015. The Navajo Region, which also includes Arizona, failed to inspect 24 percent of its facilities.

In addition to focusing on the watchdog reports, Roberts had to deliver opposition to the two significant bills that were on the committee's agenda yesterday. While he said the Obama administration supports efforts to "elevate" the BIE, he testified against S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act, or RAISE Act, which would establish a separate Indian education agency within the Interior Department.

Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) at the U.S. Capitol with leaders of the Navajo Nation in June 2015. Photo by Navajo Nation OPVP / Facebook

"If the BIA is not going to be accountable in ensuring a child’s school is safe to attend, then we must act," said Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee and the sponsor of the bill.

Under the RAISE Act, the director of the new agency would nominated by the president, rather than hired by the BIA, ensuring more prominent attention and a layer of independence to the post. Barrasso also noted that his measure establishes a deputy to focus solely on facilities management.

Roberts, however, said creating the new entity would draw administrative resources from the schools themselves. He expressed similar concerns about S.2711, the Native American Education Opportunity Act.

The bill, which was introduced by McCain, draws funds away from the BIE by placing it in an "education savings account." That money would be used so that Indian students could attend other schools.

"It would take money away from tribally-operated schools" in addition to those directly run by the BIE, Roberts said.

"I think everyone knows that they are underfunded," he added, referring to all schools in the BIE system.

From left: Arizona Sen. Carlyle Begay (R), National Indian Education Association President Patricia Whitefoot and Salish Kootenai College President Sandra Boham at Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on April 6, 2016. Photo by AZFed for Children / Twitter

The National Indian Education Association, the largest organization of its kind, also opposes the measure, a stance that drew criticism from McCain. He refused to let President Patricia Whitefoot respond as he derided her appearance at the hearing.

"I'm certainly not surprised at your opposition," McCain told Whitefoot, a member of the Yakama Nation who has worked in Indian education for over 40 years. "I've never seen an organization such as yours support an opportunity for Native American children -- or American children -- to have another opportunity."

McCain credited Arizona Sen. Carlyle Begay (R), a member of the Navajo Nation, with coming up with the idea for the bill. Begay, who recently switched his affiliation to the Republican Party, happens to be running for Congress.

The other two bills on the agenda didn't garner much discussion but they drew support from the Obama administration and the witnesses. S.2304, the Tribal Early Childhood, Education, and Related Services Integration Act, creates a demonstration project so tribes, tribal education institutions and tribal organizations can develop early childhood education programs.

S.2468, the Safe Academic Facilities and Environments for Tribal Youth Act, requires the 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.

Committee Notice:
Legislative Hearing (April 6, 2016)

Inspector General Reports:
Investigation of Improper Hiring at the Bureau of Indian Education (March 30, 2016)
Investigative Report of Brian Drapeaux (December 2, 2014)

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

Join the Conversation

Related Stories:
Witnesses for Senate Indian Affairs Committee education hearing (4/4)
Bureau of Indian Education racked by another top-level scandal (03/31)
Cronkite News: McCain bill diverts Indian school funds from BIE (03/22)
Senate Committee on Indian Affairs puts focus on Indian education bills (03/21)
Head of Bureau of Indian Affairs promises to inspect all schools (3/17)
Bureau of Indian Affairs slammed for safety conditions at schools (3/14)
House panel schedules hearing on Bureau of Indian Affairs budget (03/08)
Lakota Country Times: Great Plains tribes halt BIE reorganization (03/02)
President Obama seeks $2.9B budget for Bureau of Indian Affairs (02/09)
SAFETY Act seeks to improve Indian schools and tribal colleges (01/27)
BIE schools compete for five spots on new priority construction list (01/26)
John Barrasso: Building a prosperous and thriving Indian Country (01/25)
Rep. McCollum urges tribes to 'adopt' all members of Congress (01/14)
BIA allocates $45M to replace two aging Navajo Nation schools (01/14)
Tribes seek support for Native language instruction programs (11/24)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee to hear three education bills (11/17)
Secretary Jewell goes to Arizona to meet with BIE students (11/16)
BIE schedules consultations for Johnson-O'Malley program (11/16)
Sen. Jon Tester: Congress must do right for Indian Country (11/13)
Sally Jewell: High-speed Internet coming to BIE dormitories (11/11)
Ann Kirkpatrick: Fix reservation roads to help Indian students (11/09)
Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe challenges Indian education reforms (10/07)
Native Sun News: Dakota tribes accuse BIE of breaking settlement (09/29)
Alaska Native students being left behind in their own backyard (09/02)
BIA announces $1.75M in grants for tribal education programs (08/31)
Indian schools go without fixes while military schools see $5B (05/20)
Audio from Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing on schools (5/14)
Witness list for SCIA's hearing on Bureau of Indian Education (5/12)
Senate Indian Affairs Committee sets meeting and hearing (5/11)
Lakota Country Times: Great Plains tribes blast changes at BIE (04/29)
House subcommittee looks at poor conditions at Indian schools (04/24)
Audio: House Appropriations Committee hearing on BIA budget (02/27)
Indian school construction put back on track with latest budget (02/03)
Investigation faults former BIE officials over handling of contract (12/08)
PBS: Interview with Secretary Jewell on BIE school reform plans (12/08)
President Obama makes Native youth a priority in administration (12/4)
VOA: Standing Rock Sioux Tribe focuses on education for youth (12/02)
Editorial: Indian schools deserve more federal and state funds (12/01)
Rishawn Biddle: Report confirms how BIE fails Indian children (11/18)
GAO report questions spending at Bureau of Indian Education (11/14)
HuffPo: Carri Jones and Chase Iron Eyes on Indian education (11/7)
Aging BIA school on Navajo Nation awaits replacement funds (10/22)
Jon Whirlwind Horse: New schools bring hope for Indian children (10/02)
Michael Gross: A new battle for self-determination at BIE schools (09/08)
Gerald Gipp: National strategy needed to reform Indian education (08/27)
Sandra Fox: Fixing the education system for our Indian children (08/20)
Secretary Jewell to visit Indian schools in Maine and Minnesota (08/15)
Charles Roessel: BIE reform plan includes teacher certification (07/28)
Carla Mann: Johnson O'Malley needs an accurate student count (07/16)
Reform plan urges billions for Bureau of Indian Education schools (07/09)
Blog: Questions about Bureau of Indian Education reform plans (06/27)
Secretary Jewell announces Bureau of Indian Education reform (06/16)