After years of neglect, Congress has taken meaningful new steps to make the thousands of kids trying to learn in broken-down Bureau of Indian Education schools a national priority.
While there’s still massive work ahead to modernize all BIE facilities, language within the just-passed 2016 federal spending bill suggests that a shameful era of poor management and zeroed-out replacement construction funding is coming to an end. BIE’s 183 schools serve about 49,000 children in remote reservations in Minnesota, the Dakotas and nationwide. More than 60 schools are in such poor repair that replacement is required — a crisis detailed in a 2014 Star Tribune editorial series.
The sprawling $1.1 trillion omnibus funding bill that cleared Congress on Dec. 18 contains a $63.7 million funding increase for BIE construction next year. That’s well short of $1.3 billion needed — at a minimum — to replace all the schools in need. Nevertheless, it’s a big boost after years of little to no funding for replacement construction.
It will allow for the completion of the remaining three schools on the BIE’s most current school priority replacement list, which dates back to 2004 and only had 14 schools on it to begin with. There are also funds to carry out planning and design work for schools on a new priority list that the agency was supposed to release this fall. In addition, there’s forceful language directing the BIE’s parent agency, the Department of Interior, to adopt the Department of Defense’s swift, well-run school construction plan as a model to deal with the BIE backlog.
The Defense Department runs schools for military families and civilian employees. It is in the midst of a $5 billion effort to rebuild 134 of its 181 schools. The editorial series featured one of these new schools — a $47 million elementary school at the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Va. The series also detailed the shocking disrepair of the leaky pole barn that houses the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota.
Minnesota’s congressional delegation, especially Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum and Republican Rep. John Kline, led the charge for improved funding and management. This bipartisan teamwork must continue. This year’s funding boost cannot be a one-time event.
The troubling lag time in releasing the new BIE construction priority list also suggests that strong oversight will be necessary well into the future. Because of the delay, it’s not clear whether Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig is on the new, yet-to-be-released priority list, though it’s unimaginable how a school in such poor condition could fail to make it.
Language in the omnibus spending bill, however, suggests that policymakers have opened up a different avenue to help schools like the Bug school. The building on its campus housing younger students is in good shape. It’s the high school that’s well beyond its expiration date.
The more limited construction need may have hindered the Bug school as the BIE considered its needs against others. The omnibus legislation, however, appears to create a new funding stream for replacing a building rather an entire school — a hopeful sign.
The BIE needs to end its foot-dragging and release its new priority list. If the list doesn’t include the Bug school, the Minnesota delegation will need to ensure that the school is swiftly funded through alternative measures and that a balky bureaucracy carries out necessary reforms to provide all BIE students with school buildings in which they can learn and succeed.