Indian schools suffer from federal neglect

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 22, 2014 - 6:11 PM

In Minnesota, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig high school is a glaring example.

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The federal government runs two K-12 school systems: one for Department of Defense employees and service members and the other for Native American children. The two systems are separate, but it’s increasingly evident that they’re far from equal — a disturbing situation particularly in the Upper Midwest, which has one of the nation’s biggest clusters of Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools spread across Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

There’s no better, or appalling, illustration of the resource gap than the contrast between the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig high school on northern Minnesota’s Leech Lake Reservation and the shiny new school proposed for 275 children at the Guantanamo Bay installation in Cuba.

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig serves nearly 200 K-12 students. And while it has a dedicated staff of educators, the high school has been housed for decades in a metal pole barn that fails to meet fire, safety and security standards, has mold, is infested by rodents and bats, and has to be evacuated due to structural flaws when winds top 40 miles an hour, according to recent congressional testimony by Superintendent Crystal Redgrave.

While funding for a new high school languishes, the U.S. House just greenlighted construction of a $65 million state-of-the-art school at Guantanamo Bay. No one should begrudge these families their new facility. Those working or serving abroad deserve the best.

But so do the more than 41,000 Native kids served by BIE schools. Yet the amount likely to be spent on this one school in Guantanamo is more than the total sum appropriated by Congress this fiscal year for all BIE schools’ repairs, improvement and construction.

To be clear, that’s $65 million for one school serving 275 children and $55 million for BIE’s 183 facilities on 64 reservations in 23 states. It’s also worth noting that the Guantanamo facility is just one of several big defense-school projects on track for funding. Minnesota Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Rick Nolan have admirably been at the forefront of calling out the funding gap and pushing specifically to replace the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig high school. Estimated cost: around $25 million.

Despite their support, the project remains only a distant possibility, which is why the Midwest’s congressional delegation needs to get involved. Republicans with growing clout, such as Minnesota Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, are especially needed.

Federal resources for operation, maintenance and construction at Native schools have long been in free fall, declining from $204 million in 2007 to $112 million in 2010, according to a 2011 report. Even with additional stimulus dollars, that left a backlog of $1.3 billion to bring facilities rated in poor condition, such as Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, to good or fair condition. North and South Dakota suffer some of the biggest backlogs of funding for schools in poor condition.

Funding has continued downward, from $71 million in 2012 for total education construction to $55 million in 2014. Sequestration has made the funding scenario particularly challenging because the cuts disproportionately came out of the federal budget “pie piece” from which these funds flow.

Congress faces many demands for limited public dollars. But if it can find adequate funding for one federal education system, there’s a moral imperative to do the same for another system serving children with well-known educational and economic challenges.

Kline and Paulsen, who enjoy good relations with the House’s Republican leadership, need to lend their credibility to this cause. Their involvement would be a good opportunity before this fall’s election to engage in high-profile bipartisanship and education advocacy. Even more important, it’s the fair thing to do for the kids at Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig and schools like it.

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