Bill to create new Indian education agency draws Democratic fire

Students at Santa Fe Indian School, a Bureau of Indian Education institution in New Mexico. Photo from Facebook

A controversial bill to create a new Indian education agency cleared the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on Wednesday over the objections of Democrats.

S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act (RAISE Act), effectively elevates the Bureau of Indian Education within the Interior Department. It requires the director to be nominated by the president, rather than hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, bringing more attention and a layer of independence to the post.

"It's appalling that the current Bureau of Indian Education has gone through 34 directors since 1979 -- that's practically a new director every year," Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the committee and the sponsor of the bill. "You wonder how an organization can survive if the leader of the organization cannot be held accountable to the students or the taxpayers."

But while Democrats praised Barrasso for seeking to reform the BIE, they slammed a substitute amendment that makes significant changes to the version of the bill that was introduced in February. One of the biggest is a provision that caps the funding for the new agency at $983 million, including $130 million for school construction.

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting May 11 2016

"That level is actually $8 million less than what Congress provided this year and $67 million below what the president requested for 2017," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico).

Udall described the bill's funding level as "permanent." He said that will make it very difficult for future administrations and future Congresses to increase support for BIE schools, tribal colleges, Native languages and other Indian education initiatives.

"I appreciate that we are operating under tight budget caps but I'm concerned that the bill doesn't provide enough funding for Indian education programs," said Udall, who serves as the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that handles the BIA and BIE budgets.

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-North Dakota) voiced similar concerns. She has spent much of her legislative agenda focusing on Indian youth.

"Having recently returned from two of my reservations in North Dakota, I can tell you, the last thing we need to do is set caps on Indian education," Heitkamp said. "Where I sincerely appreciate the efforts and the attempts to hold agencies accountable, I will tell you I am concerned that setting caps sends the wrong message."

Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming), the chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is the sponsor of S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act (RAISE Act). Photo from SCIA

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), the vice chairman of the committee, called the RAISE Act a "step in the right direction." But he too questioned the funding cap and said other provisions in the substitute amendment "don't work very well."

"I believe this is an important message to send to the BIE, to make them come to the table so that they understand that they either fix their problems or we'll fix them for them," Tester said.

Barrasso defended the changes and agreed that the $983 million figure is "fixed" in the bill. But that amount is higher than the average of the BIE's budgets between 2013 and 2016, which was about $881 million, he said.

The substitute also requires the president to submit a separate budget request to detail how the $130 million in school construction funds will be spent.

"This I believe is going to provide greater accountability, transparency and resources to the education agency," Barrasso said.

Despite objections from Democrats, Barrasso was able to push his amendment, and the bill itself, through the committee. A roll call vote -- which is rare for the normally bipartisan panel -- was not requested, although Tester and Udall could be heard loudly saying "Nay" when the substitute was brought up.

Assuming the bill gets a vote in the Senate floor, it still faces opposition from the Obama administration. At a hearing in April, Larry Roberts, the acting head of the BIA, said creating the new agency would draw resources away from the schools in the BIE system, many of which suffer from underfunding.

Patricia Whitefoot, the president of the National Indian Education Association, testified about S.2580, the Reforming American Indian Standards of Education Act (RAISE Act), and other Indian education bills at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on April 6, 2016. Photo from SCIA

Patricia Whitefoot, the president of the National Indian Education Association, offered conditional support for the RAISE Act at that hearing. But Barrasso submitted a new letter of support from the organization -- the largest of its kind -- that embraced the changes he made to the bill.

"Chairman Barrasso, the resulting language will provide greater clarity to a continued investment in strengthening school systems for students attending Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) facilities," Whitefoot wrote in a letter on Tuesday. "We thank you for incorporating NIEA’s recommendation for the new Indian Education Agency to establish its own budget by adding language around authorized levels that reflect the need to best support the agency and the students it serves."

Whitefoot, a member of the Yakama Nation who has worked in Indian education for over 40 years, incidentally had been derided by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) at that hearing when she said NIEA opposed his bill to divert funds from the BIE and put them into accounts that could be used to pay for schooling at other institutions. That bill -- S.2711, the Native American Education Opportunity Act -- was not up for consideration at the business meeting on Wednesday.

In other actions, the committee approved S.1163, the Native American Languages Reauthorization Act. The bill extends grants awarded under the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act from three years to five years. The committee held a hearing on November 18, 2015.

"This country went to great lengths to abolish the use of Native languages not so long ago," said Tester, the sponsor of the bill. "I believe we must do all we can to reverse those impacts of bad policies, which caused a number of generations of Native Americans to lose out on learning their own language and heritage."

The committee also approved S.2739, the Spokane Tribe of Indians of the Spokane Reservation Equitable Compensation Act. The bill compensates the Spokane Tribe of Washington for land lost to the Grand Coulee Dam.

The committee hasn't held a hearing on the bill during the 114th Congress but prior versions have been advanced in the past. The measure provides $53 million to the tribe.

"This is legislation that has passed both the House and the Senate, just never at the same time, so hopefully this Congress, we will be able to do that," said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), the sponsor of the bill.

Committee Notice:
Business Meeting to consider S. 1163, S. 2580 & S. 2739 (May 11, 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)

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