Controversial Indian education bill advances on party-line vote

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Business Meeting September 7, 2016

A controversial Indian education bill cleared a key hurdle on Wednesday after Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) blew up at a committee meeting on Capitol Hill.

McCain, who is running for re-election, lashed out at the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs at the meeting, accusing Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) of not caring about the dire conditions at Bureau of Indian Education schools. Reciting a slew of statistics, he said Indian students continue to suffer at the hands of the federal government.

"So the Senator from Montana wants the status quo," McCain said. "A new school year has begun for 41,000 Native American students in 185 BIE schools around the nation -- half of them will not graduate high school."

"So that's fine for the Senator from Montana," McCain said.

"Test scores will trail by double digits compared to their peers attending public schools in urban areas," McCain added. "That's fine for the Senator from Montana."

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

Tester shot back, arguing that McCain's bill -- known as S.2711, the Native American Education Opportunity Act -- was the wrong solution to a huge problem. By taking money away from BIE schools and allowing parents to use those funds at institutions of their choice, in essence creating a voucher program, he said Congress will end up hurting Indian Country even more.

"The fact is, if you want to talk about the failure in public education, we all need to look in the mirror," said Tester, who used to be a teacher. "You can talk about how great things are with the voucher systems, and you can talk about great things are with taking kids out of public education. But quite frankly, this bill takes it from every tribe in the country."

"I'd be more than happy to have every tribal school in the country come here and testify to this committee about how much extra money they have to blow on education," Tester added. "But you know that's not correct."

The clash was not unusual for the committee. Although its members typically act in a bi-partisan fashion, they occasionally disagree on bills and aren't shy about voicing their concerns at meetings.

But up until Wednesday, no one on the committee had never asked for a recorded vote on a particular bill during the 114th Congress. The last one in fact took place more than 10 years ago, when a controversial Indian gaming measure was approved over the objections of Democrats.

After Tester requested the tally, all six Democrats voted against S.2711, either by registering their opposition in person or by proxy. But they were outweighed by the seven Republicans on the committee, meaning McCain's bill can now be considered by the full Senate.

Patricia Whitefoot, the president of the National Indian Education Association, testifies at a Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing on April 6, 2016. Photo from SCIA

With time running short in the 114th Congress due to the upcoming presidential election, the bill faces an uncertain future. Indian Country does not support the measure -- the National Indian Education Association raised serious concerns at a hearing in April -- and neither does the Obama administration.

In June, the National Congress of American Indians passed a resolution that opposes the type of voucher program that McCain's bill would create. "[D]espite the pressing need for funding parity and equitable access, historical funding trends illustrate that the federal government has been abandoning its trust responsibility by not fully funding BIE," the largest inter-tribal organization stated.

The only support from Indian Country has come from Arizona Sen. Carlyle Begay (R), a member of the Navajo Nation whom McCain credited with coming up with the idea for the bill. He had been courting Republican lawmakers in D.C. -- including the chairman of the committee -- for his Congressional campaign but he quit the race long before the primary.

In other business at the meeting on Wednesday, the committee approved S.Con.Res.49, the PROTECT Patrimony Resolution. The Protection of the Right of Tribes to Stop the Export of Cultural and Traditional Patrimony Resolution calls upon the federal government to work with tribes to stop the export of tribal property.

The committee did not hold a hearing on the resolution but the issue has garnered significant attention as tribes have repeatedly seen their property end up on the auction block in France. Diplomatic efforts to bring the items back home have failed.

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

"These items are not pieces of art -- they are sacred objects, deeply important for tribal identity and we need to put a stop to the trafficking of these objects," Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) said at the meeting.

"This a very serious issue: the absolute looting of artifacts that are so important and vital to not only Native American history, but American history," added McCain.

The committee also approved S.2959. The bill, which was heard on June 29, amends the White Mountain Apache Tribe Water Rights Quantification Act of 2010 and allows the White Mountain Apache Tribe to move forward with a critical drinking water project in Arizona.

"We have an obligation to complete this dam," McCain said of the project for the Miner Flat Dam and Reservoir. "We should condemn none of our citizens to a situation where they have their water supply contaminated and even disappearing."

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice:
Business Meeting to consider S. Con. Res. 49, S. 2711 & S. 2959 (September 7, 2016)

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