Reorganizing the Bureau of Indian Education’s (BIE) Schools

President Barack Obama unveiled the administration’s vision for a new and improved Bureau of Indian Education to dramatically improve the federally funded schools that serve nearly 50,000 American Indian children. The long-troubled agency directly operates 57 schools for Native American students and oversees 126 others run under contract by tribes—a small slice of the wide range of publicly funded schools serving that student population. On most measures of educational success, American Indian and Alaska Native children lag behind their peers. According to federal data, the four-year graduation rate for American Indian and Alaska Native students in 2011-12 was 67 percent, trailing all other major student groups except for English-language learners.

BIE students, compared with their Native American peers in regular public schools, also scored lower on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests in 4th grade. Poverty rates in tribal communities are among the most severe in the nation. Pine Ridge, S.D., which is home to the 40,000-member Oglala Lakota Nation, has a per-capita income of less than $8,000 a year, for example

The plan calls for a reorientation of the BIE from an agency that operates schools from Washington to a “school improvement organization” that delivers resources and support services to schools that are locally controlled by tribes.

The reorganization of the BIE comes after years of scathing reports from watchdog groups, including the U.S Governments Accountability Office and chronic complaints from tribal educators about the agency’s financial and academic mismanagement and failure to advocate more effectively for the needs of schools that serve Native American students. The reorganization process will unfold during the next two years. It also comes a year after Secretary of the Interior Jewell, whose department includes the BIE, called the federally funded Indian education system “an embarrassment” during a Congressional hearing on the topic. Among many other provisions, it calls for addressing the more than $2 billion in facilities repairs needed to bring all BIE schools up to “acceptable” condition and recruiting private partners to help cover the costs needed to upgrade grossly outdated technology infrastructures in many of the schools.

The BIE is overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is housed within the U.S. Department of the Interior. Only about 7 percent of the nation’s American Indian and Alaska Native students are served in BIE-funded schools.

The blueprint also urges the administration to request that Congress fully fund the operational costs budget for the tribally controlled schools overseen by the BIE. Currently, the BIE provides 67 percent of such costs, often forcing tribal educators to dip into instructional funds for basics like heating. The current BIE budget for its K-12 schools is roughly $800 million—with about $200 million of that coming from the U.S. Department of Education in the form of Title I and Individuals with Disabilities Education Act grants. Current enrollment in the fragmented system is 48,000 students.

Most American Indian children are enrolled in regular public school districts, many of them on reservations or adjacent to tribal lands. Those schools rely disproportionately on federal dollars—known as impact aid—to help make up for tax revenue lost because reservation lands are nontaxable. Cody Two Bears, a member of the tribal council for the Standing Rock Nation, urged Mr. Obama during the president’s visit to the reservation not to overlook the importance of protecting the needs of impact-aid schools, which were hit hard by the cuts to federal education spending brought on by the recent budget sequestration.

Tribal resistance prompted the study group to drop its original proposal to create a Race to the Top-like competitive-grant program for tribal schools that agreed to adopt policies such as teacher evaluations tied in part to student test scores. Instead, the blueprint calls for the development of “incentive grants” that would encourage tribal schools to adopt best practices that BIE officials help identify in other tribally and agency-controlled schools.

And while the blueprint’s authors originally envisioned a revamped BIE developing robust recruitment and retention strategies for talented teachers and principals, the final plan focuses more on beefing up professional-development opportunities for educators already working in the schools. During the next three years, the administration will cover the costs for teachers and other instructional-staff members in BIE schools who wish to pursue the rigorous certification process offered by the National Board for Teacher Certification.