Bush school proposal faces tribal debate
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The Bush administration is getting ready to hold a round of nationwide consultation sessions to discuss another one of its controversial proposals.

Starting next month, the Bureau of Indian Affairs will hold seven meetings on a push to privative dozens of Indian schools. A Federal Register notice being finalized will announce the schedule, which is set to begin the second week in April and conclude the last week of May.

At the center of the debate is whether schools described as "rock bottom" by officials should be stripped from BIA control. The bureau oversees 185 schools, the overwhelming majority of which are administered through tribal contracts.

But what has drawn the most criticism is a move to give private entities control of the facilities should tribes not accept the government's offer. In total, there are 69 schools facing privatization.

Under President Bush's new federal budget, money is directed to start what Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb calls a "demonstration program." At a Congressional hearing last week, he said $11.9 million will be used to identify two or three schools as the best candidates.

Responding to questions about tribal involvement, McCaleb told the House Interior Appropriations subcommittee he will give "great credence" to the input of tribal leaders and Indian educators. He said he doesn't know how well the meetings will go over and said Indian Country is taking a "wait and see" approach to the issue.

For their part, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised a number of doubts about the effort and education spending overall. "Are Indians being left out?" asked Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.) last week, referring to Bush's education pledge.

"The tribes are probably the neediest in the country," he said.

Dicks also questioned why proposal gives incentives only to private contractors to boost performance. McCaleb responded that he would consider making the same offer to tribes.

According to Bill Mehojah, director of the Office of Indian Education Programs, the privatization push actually began at the end of the Clinton administration, He said schools were identified based on the BIA's annual report cards and not entirely on a September 2001 General Accounting Office report cited in Bush budget documents.

McCaleb, however, has referenced the study as key to supporting the Bush proposal. "We're not getting enough bang for our buck," he said.

The BIA knows of several private contractors that would be interested in taking over the schools, Mehojah said. These companies would be paid to manage the schools, he said.

Of the $11.9 million dedicated for privatization, $3 million will be used to kick off the initiative. Some $2 million is outlined for "potential teacher displacement costs."

Get Budget Documents:
Interior Budget in Brief [DOI] | Budget Highlights: Service to American Indians [DOI] | Budget Highlights: Bureau of Indian Affairs [DOI] | Interior Overview [OMB] | Interior Details [OMB]

Related Report:
BIA and DOD Schools: Student Achievement and Other Characteristics Often Differ from Public Schools' (GAO-01-934)

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

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