With at least $1.3 billion needed to replace deteriorating Bureau of Indian Education schools in Minnesota and across the nation, the sum requested in the Obama administration’s 2016 budget for BIE school construction is a disappointment.
That amount, $45 million, will help the BIE finally replace two schools in Arizona that have been waiting for new facilities since 2004 — if Congress approves the budget request. At this pace, it will take roughly 30 years to work through the BIE school construction backlog.
More than 60 BIE schools, including northern Minnesota’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School, which is housed in an aging pole barn, are rated in poor condition. The federal government’s neglect of these schools was detailed in “Separate and Unequal,” a series of Star Tribune editorials published late last year.
Still, perspective is needed. The $45 million, while woefully inadequate, is nevertheless an improvement over the administration’s budget requests for BIE replacement school construction in recent years, which totaled $0. In addition, the total budget request for Indian education now tops $1 billion, the largest number in seven years.
The request includes a badly needed $20 million boost in operations and maintenance funding. There’s also a $34 million investment to deliver broadband access, as well as innovative initiatives to improve college and career readiness. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., summed it up best: “This new budget proposal from the Department of Interior is a sign that people are paying attention.”
The challenge now is to build on this awareness at both the federal and state levels and leverage it into concrete steps that will improve education in the 183 BIE schools in Minnesota and across the nation. The U.S. obligation to BIE schools flows from land treaties signed with tribes long ago. Some states, such as Minnesota, also provide funding.
Franken, along with Minnesota Democratic Reps. Betty McCollum and Rick Nolan, have been dogged advocates for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School, one of four BIE schools in the state, and the entire BIE school system. But with both the U.S. House and Senate now controlled by Republicans, they’ll need help from their Midwest colleagues across the aisle. Most of the GOP reaction to the presidential budget request has so far been critical, and the BIE funding requests face significant uncertainty.
One of the largest clusters of BIE schools in dire disrepair spreads across South Dakota, North Dakota and Minnesota. Fortunately, these states also have increasingly influential Republican members of Congress. Minnesota Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen, along with Sen. John Thune from South Dakota and Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota, should be at the forefront of pushing for BIE school modernization. Modern, well-equipped schools give kids and communities struggling with crime, poverty and addiction a fighting chance.
In response to questions from an editorial writer, Paulsen accurately called the president’s construction request “a Band-Aid” and said these students “deserve better than a short-term fix.’’ Hoeven said he “supports Interior’s budget request for school construction and will use his seat on the Indian Affairs Committee to evaluate needs beyond their request to help make sure school construction on the reservation is properly funded.’’ (The U.S. Department of Interior is the BIE’s parent agency.)
Kline also clearly shares this page’s frustration with how long it has taken to replace Minnesota’s Bug school and many other BIE schools, calling the conditions “deplorable.’’
“I am pleased the president has proposed some resources for the Bureau of Indian Education,” Kline said. “We need to maintain steady financial support to help address the problem, but just as importantly, we must get to the bottom of this bureaucratic boondoggle. It shouldn’t take a decade or more to repair a broken school.”
As the powerful chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Kline is in position to determine what has gone wrong within the BIE system and to leverage the military’s expertise in launching a school construction surge. The Department of Defense runs the other federal K-12 system and is in the midst of a $5 billion school replacement effort.
A hearing before Kline’s committee on this issue would provide valuable answers. The Minnesota congressman should seize the opportunity to find desperately needed solutions for the failing facilities where some of nation’s neediest students go to learn.