Controversial BIA school proposal dropped
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THURSDAY, MAY 16, 2002

A BIG DIFFERENCE: Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb visit students at Isleta Elementary School in Isleta Pueblo, New Mexico. Photo © NSM.
The Bush administration won't try to privatize the worst-performing Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb said on Wednesday.

Although some tribal and Indian education leaders expressed doubts about the controversial proposal, opposition from key members of Congress ultimately led to its demise, McCaleb said on a nationally broadcast radio program. "They're not going to fund the privatization element that was included in the president's budget," he told listeners of Native America Calling.

McCaleb was planning on moving forward with an $11.9 million pilot program after a series of consultation meetings in Indian Country. But the topic was taken off the agenda in response to "a pretty clear message" from Congressional committees which control the Department of Interior's funds, he acknowledged.

"Obviously it wasn't our decision to take privatization off the table," he said.

The news drew praise from John Cheek, executive director of National Indian Education Association, the oldest and largest advocacy group for Native children. "That's a pretty positive thing to hear for a lot of people," he said.

The sessions will still take place under an aggressive schedule announced last week. Bill Mehojah, the agency's Indian education director, admitted the agency was under a tight restraints to discuss issues affecting the 185 schools and 50,000 children he oversees.

"It was an administrative problem," he told Indianz.Com in an interview yesterday.

The blocking of the proposal marks the second time in recent months that Congress has put a stop to Bush-led efforts at the Interior. In December, key members of Congress prohibited the department from using $300 million in existing funds to create an Indian trust agency.

Since the school initiative was announced in February, lawmakers told the BIA to take a careful look. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) in particular was concerned about the effect on Indian Country.

"If it's done unilaterally, we will keep you from doing it," he warned McCaleb in March.

Along with Secretary of Interior Gale Norton, the BIA officials were visiting tribal schools in New Mexico as part of the Bush administration's focus on education. In the morning, they toured the elementary school at Isleta Pueblo and enjoyed a reading session and lunch hour with the students.

From there, it was off to the To'Hajillee-He School, located in a Navajo Nation community near Albuquerque. Norton took part in discussions of the the Family and Child Education (FACE) program, which encourages early involvement, including pre-natal care, in schooling.

The decade-old effort drew positive reviews from Navajo parents who said they noticed improvements even in their own families. Children who participated were more communicative, outgoing and interested in their education than older siblings who didn't, according to anecdotal evidence provided by parents at yesterday's talking circle.

The BIA's fiscal year budget for 2003 includes a total of $12.2 million for early education efforts. An increase of $3 million has been requested to expand the FACE program to 6 additional schools beyond the more than 30 currently served.

Norton and her aides are touring Santa Fe Indian School in Santa Fe today. The Bush administration in fiscal year 2003 is providing $15.3 million to the Pueblo-owned boarding school to complete the second phase of a $38.5 million expansion project.

Relevant Documents:
Notice on Indian Country Consultation (5/7)

Relevant Links:
Office of Indian Education Programs, BIA -
Indian School Report Cards, BIA -
National Indian Education Association -

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