WASHINGTON — Across the country, half the schools serving Indian students are dilapidated, and achievement rates among the students are lower than traditional public school kids, panelists told a U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee hearing Wednesday.
GOP Rep. John Kline, who chairs the committee, hosted the hearing after visiting Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School on Leech Lake Indian Reservation in northern Minnesota earlier this month. The school is an old pole barn, with a leaky roof and foundation and such weak electrical cables and pipes that teachers can't turn on all the electrical equipment at the same time.
Melissa Emrey-Arras, director at the U.S. Government Accountability Office, testified that Indian students consistently score lower than students attending traditional public schools. She blamed that lack of achievement in part on poor management and fragmented communication between schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The GAO has released a report on mismanagement of Indian education.
"I don't know whether to laugh or cry," Kline said, after the hearing. He expressed frustration that so many federal agencies, from the Interior Department to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the Department of Education, all are charged with supervising Indian schools, yet no one is getting the job done.
"We're not well organized here either," Kline added. "We in Congress can't let that be an excuse."
Conditions at the Bug school were highlighted in a Star Tribune editorial board series called "Separate and Unequal." The series was a Pulitzer Prize finalist this week and the writer, Jill Burcum, testified Wednesday at Kline's hearing. Also on the panel was Brian Cladoosby, president of the National Congress of American Indians.
Burcum said she felt a sense of "defeatism" when pressing federal Interior officials on how they were going to improve schools. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell visited the Bug school last year.
"Her visit inspired hope that there will be a new school sometime soon," Burcum said. "There is no plan as far as I can tell to rebuild the school … their hands are tied, there is no funding available, they're busy doing a bureaucratic reorganization."
Neither Interior Department nor Bureau of Indian Affairs officials were invited to the hearing, which was meant only to be an information-gathering session before Kline and his colleagues decide what to do next, his staffers said.
Interior officials did not comment on Wednesday's hearing.