Minnesota’s congressional delegation merits praise for its full-court press last week to improve the nation’s dilapidated and underachieving Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school system. Answers, however, are still frustratingly elusive about when schools like Minnesota’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School, now housed in a metal pole barn, will be rebuilt.
In this age of highly charged partisanship, the bipartisan charge to tackle this educational crisis is especially admirable — and needed. About 50,000 children in Minnesota and 22 other states attend class in the BIE system, one of two federal K-12 school systems. But graduation rates lag well behind other students, and the school facilities are often in shockingly poor condition, as a 2014 Star Tribune editorial series detailed.
Minnesota’s Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig, located on the Leech Lake Indian reservation, is one of 64 BIE schools rated in poor condition. Recent leadership turnover at the school underscores the need for a safe, modern facility to attract and retain top teachers and leaders.
Minnesota Republican Rep. John Kline and Democratic Sen. Al Franken understand the severity of the problem, and last week they questioned BIE Executive Director Charles “Monte” Roessel about his agency’s long history of questionable management and leadership churn. The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, on which Franken sits, called Roessel to testify on Wednesday. Leech Lake Chair Carri Jones also testified at the hearing, eloquently relaying the real-world impact that bureaucratic delays have on students in her community.
Kline, the influential chairman of the U.S. House Education and the Workforce Committee, held a full committee hearing on BIE schools on Thursday. This is his committee’s second hearing on the issue, which strongly underscores Kline’s commitment to BIE school improvements. A subcommittee delved into BIE challenges last month.
Franken and Kline asked the right questions in their hearings, and Roessel outlined his agency’s “blueprint” for reform. There are some good ideas in it. Both Minnesota lawmakers acknowledged that — and, even more importantly, emphasized the need for more resources to carry out long-overdue reforms at the underfunded agency.
At the same time, they repeatedly made it clear that rebuilding Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig and other BIE schools can’t take a back seat to the agency’s reorganization. When new buildings will be built is still unclear, but these two Minnesota lawmakers sent a strong message that students’ needs must come first.