For years, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) has struggled to meet the needs of approximately 48,000 Native American students in 183 elementary and secondary schools. Schools are located on 64 reservations, in 23 American states. It hasn’t been easy.
In 2005, Native students performed better than black and Hispanic students in fourth grade reading and eighth grade math.
But by 2011, that was no longer the case. They were scoring lower.
"Unlike achievement results for every other major ethnic group in the United States," a 2013 report by The Education Trust says, "those for Native students have remained nearly flat in recent years, and the gaps separating these students from their white peers have actually widened."
Of the 183 schools that fall under the BIE's purview, 54 are operated by the BIE while another 129 are operated by tribes, according to the Department of the Interior. Those operated by tribes do so with Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act contracts or Tribally Controlled Schools Act grants.
The U.S. Department of Education provided 23% of the federal funds used for the operation and management of BIE’s K-12 schools in fiscal year 2015. Over $93 million dollars was Title 1 money. $75 million more came from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The educational achievement gap and poverty run parallel on tribal land. According to the 2014 White House Native Youth Report, more than one in three American Indian and Alaska Native children live in poverty. In BIE schools, the graduation rate is 53%, as compared to a national U.S. average of 80%.
And today, just 18% of Native fourth-graders tested as proficient or advanced in reading, according to the 2011 National Indian Education Study, the most current data released by the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP). For white fourth-graders, that percentage was 42%.
Just 69% of Native high school students were able to complete high school in four years. For whites, the number is 83%.
Of the reported 607,000 Native American and Alaskan Native students in the United States, just 7% attend schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education. 93% attend regular public schools, and the majority are in rural districts.
Schools in different states also have varying rates of student success. Oregon, Oklahoma, and Washington states boasted the highest NAEP performance for all Native students. New Mexico, Arizona, and Alaska fared the worst.
'Dismal educational outcomes' for Native youth in BIE-funded schools
The BIE schools in particular have "dismal educational outcomes," Indian Country Today reported last year, in part due to "misappropriated funds, poor management and dodgy procurement practices."
As recently as last month, the U.S. Department of the Interior cited a need for the BIE’s "dramatic reform."
"As it stands today, the BIE is a relic of the past — an outdated system that existed when the federal government directly operated boarding schools for Native children," a Department of the Interior press release stated. "For many American Indians, these schools were little better than concentration camps. The legacy of this system haunts us today."
But the Obama administration is now trying to change that.
Obama's "Generation Indigenous" initiative has a clear focus on education, tasking the Department of the Interior to reform the BIE in order to "provide students attending BIE-funded schools with a world-class education and transform the agency to serve as a capacity-builder and service-provider for Tribes in educating their youth."
The gist of the blueprint was transforming the BIE's role into one of support to individual tribes, instead of acting as a provider and administrator of schools. As of June 2014, according to a press release from the Department of the Interior, "American Indian education has been handed over to tribes in approximately two-thirds of BIE schools."
The BIE's online synopsis of its restructuring takes transparency into account, along with outlining new positions, proposals to track progress and examples of aid to BIE-funded school staff.
New opportunities with TED and STEP funding?
Last week, on November 5, 2015, a new pair of federal grants totaling approximately $2.5 million dollars was announced, to help eight specific tribes.
The first is from the U.S. Department of Education State-Tribal Education Partnership (STEP) program. STEP money, totaling $1,766,232, is earmarked for the Chickasaw Nation and the the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma, the Nez Perce and Coeur D'Alene tribes of Idaho, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes in Montana.
The funding is meant to be used over the course of the next four years, to support a partnership between tribal schools and traditional districts to develop "culturally sensitive teaching strategies, curriculum materials and data-sharing that can improve attendance, raise graduation rates and reduce dropouts among Native youth."
The second grant is from the Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Educations' Tribal Education Department (TED). Thus far in 2015, TED grants have totaled around $2 million dollars, aimed at increasing tribal governments' control and restructuring of BIE schools. It's also supposed to fund the creation of unique tribal-focused curriculum.
The latest influx of $700,000 will go to four tribes: the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians in Michigan, the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Chippewa Tribe of Minnesota, the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, and the Muscogee (Creek) Nation of Oklahoma. Previously, over $1.3 million dollars was granted to the Acoma Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Both the TED and STEP programs have awarded big grants before, and both play integral roles in advancing educational opportunities for Native youth. The TED program is aimed at capacity building with the goal of enabling tribal education agencies to take on state and local administrative functions, leading to greater empowerment for tribes to administer education to tribal youth. The STEP program is primarily concerned with schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education, and improving the quality of education offered there.
The funding is also meant to encourage both BIE and tribal-run schools to find new ways to braid tribal culture, language and history into native students' curriculum.
Questions remain around BIE spending and accountability
In his proposed 2016 budget, President Obama intends to increase the overall amount of federal funding for Native programs by $1.5 billion dollars. "These increases support improved access to Federal programs and resources, particularly focused on youth through the Administration's newly-established Generation Indigenous initiative," the budget's executive summary states.
The administration’s 2010 guide "A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” also proposes that grantees have "greater flexibility to use funds to carry out programs that meet the needs of Indian students, including Native language immersion and Native language restoration programs, and develop tribal specific standards and assessments."
Obama's 2016 budget would channel $34.2 million dollars towards broadband connections and computer access at BIE-funded schools, a total of $18 million to provide for better teacher housing, and $53 million "support community-driven, comprehensive strategies to improve college and career-readiness of Native youth." Another $59 million dollars is aimed at improving facilities and general infrastructure, like leaky roofs, at various schools, while an overall funding increase of $94 million dollars will go towards BIE schools in general.
Yet Indian Country Today, a leading media outlet covering Native issues, has reflected on the administration's previous promises and funding proposals with skepticism.
"... Whether the recommendations can be implemented in any meaningful way given the government's chronic underfunding for the agency is not clear," the outlet reported, pointing to problems highlighted by Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports published in September 2013 and a year later in November 2014.
In the 2014 report, entitled "Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending," the GAO found the BIE "lacks sufficient staff with expertise to oversee school expenditures" and that half of the BIE's administrative staff had been let go due to slashed federal funding in 2014. The 13 administrators who remained "have many additional responsibilities and an increased workload, making it challenging for them to provide effective oversight of schools," it stated.
"Meanwhile, some schools have serious financial problems," the report continued. "Notably, external auditors identified $13.8 million in unallowable spending at 24 schools as of July 2014. Further, in March 2014, an audit found that one school lost about $1.2 million in federal funds that were improperly transferred to an off-shore account."