Neglect by Feds Causing Native American School Crisis

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Federally-run schools for Native American children have been misspending and misusing millions of dollars of the funding meant for educational needs, a government review shows.

In one case, says Kimberly Hefling of the Associated Press, $1.7 million was illegally transferred to an offshore account, perhaps because of hacking. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has criticized the fiscal management of the schools and says there is “little assurance” that federal funds are being spent appropriately, even for special education.

The Bureau of Indian Education is run by the Interior Department, which oversees 180 schools with 41,000 students. These schools, for the most part, are located in remote and impoverished locations. In the 19th century, many Native American children were taken from their homes and required to go to boarding schools, and these are some of the schools that are being used today, even though they are among the nation’s poorest facilities and house many under-performing students.

Even though external auditors discovered $13.8 million in impermissible spending in July, federal managers did not follow up. The number of administrators watching over school expenditures has dwindled from 22 to 13, in part as a result of budget cuts.

“High staff turnover and reductions in the number of education line office administrators as well as their lack of expertise and training have left them struggling to adequately monitor school expenses,” the GAO said.

The assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, Kevin Washburn, agreed with the GAO and is in the process of restructuring  to address the issues which were raised.

“The department understands that providing quality administrative services to assist in the success of Indian youth in Indian Country is vital to their individual success and to the future of Indian country,” Washburn said.

The Obama administration wants to turn more control over to the tribes, streamline bureaucracy, and turn the agency into school improvement central. At this time, 120 schools are controlled by tribes, and the others are run by the federal government.

Problems range from weakly-performing staff to inadequate facilities. In Bena, Minnesota, when winter hits, the school house at the Indian reservation in northern Minnesota does not protect students adequately, according to Mitch Smith of The New York Times.

“I think we need a new school,” Ms. Stately said last month after her upper-grade students had practiced introducing themselves in the Ojibwe language. “It’s cold here in the wintertime. They’re not comfortable. And how can you learn when you’re freezing?”

This is not unusual in the 185 federally-funded schools in 23 states. Not only that, but the decades of neglect have caused struggling students, high turnover of educators, and buildings that are frequently in shambles. At Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School, named after a late member of the tribe, there is a science lab, but it is not ventilated, and therefore cannot be used for experiments.

The Department of the Interior says it would cost $1.3 billion to restore all buildings to usable conditions. On the national reading assessment in 2011, fourth graders at bureau schools scored 22 points lower than their Native American peers in other public schools.

“It’s not like going to a school board,” said Don Yu, a special adviser to the education secretary who is working with the Interior Department on improving Indian schools. “We have to go to senators and congressmen and ask them for this funding. Getting funding for new major infrastructure problems has been extremely challenging.”

Richard Banton of the University of Georgia’s newspaper, The Red and Black, writes that the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaskan Native Education began its first school environment listening tour this October. The idea is to hear from American Indian students and use their ideas as a resource to ensure that these young people have “equitable education opportunities and healthy learning environments.”

In a HuffPost Live interview, Nancy Redd spoke with two leaders in the Native American world, Carri Jones of Cass Lake, Minn. who is chairwoman of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and Chase Iron Eyes of Standing Rock Nation, ND, who is an attorney and founder of LastRealIndians.com. Jones said that the US has a treaty obligation to provide Native American children a quality education, and the government has failed. She adds that it seems that the federal government wants to use a band aid fix rather than looking at the bigger picture of what is needed for reservation schools.

Mr. Iron Eyes points out that the American government forced deliberate destruction of American Indian’s value system which made them become underachievers, unprepared for the world outside the reservation.