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BIA initiatives to impact Indian education
TUESDAY, MARCH 11, 2003

Members of the nation's largest Indian education association moved to oppose two Bush administrative initiatives they said would negatively impact Bureau of Indian Affairs schools.

Citing a lack of consultation and potential violation of federal law, attendees of the National Indian Education Association's annual legislative summit in Washington, D.C., criticized the pending reorganization of the BIA. Although pitched as means of fixing long-standing trust mismanagement problems, they said it radically affects the tribal-federal relationship.

"It's going to change the way the bureau does business in Indian education," said Lorena Zah Bahe, executive director of the Navajo Nation Community Controlled School Boards, yesterday.

Coming in the midst of a nationwide push to reform public schools under the No Child Left Behind Act, the reorganization realigns the Office of Indian Education Programs (OIEP). Although the act requires OIEP director Bill Mehojah to report to the assistant secretary for Indian affairs, he would instead be placed under a new "principal" assistant secretary.

Some tribal leaders and educators say they can live with that change. But plans to strip OIEP of its school administrative functions and parcel them to other parts of the BIA are drawing opposition.

Nedra Darling, a BIA spokesperson, said the changes would help the OIEP oversee the education of nearly 50,000 Indian children at 185 schools, which enjoy a close relationship with locally- and tribally-driven school boards. Moving contracting, personnel and other functions "frees up" people to work only on Indian education programs, she argued.

But at the same time, critics said the BIA is getting ready to use program funds earmarked for emergencies -- such as fires and repairs -- for administrative uses. Tucked in the $397 billion omnibus appropriations act signed into law last month is a provision that allows Secretary of Interior Gale Norton to redirect these moneys for a tribal consultation effort under the reform act.

"To use even one dollar of the [BIA] funds for anything other than education programs or emergencies would be a callous disregard of your responsibility to Indian students, who suffer from inadequate funding in all aspects of their education," wrote Oglala Sioux President John Yellow Bird Steele in a letter to Norton last week.

Vern Duus, a legislative analyst for the NIEA, called the provision "a surprise." "This is an improper act," he said in an interview.

Last year, the Department of Interior held consultation sessions over a 10-month period about the reorganization. But Indian education was never discussed. Separately, OIEP held a series of meetings last summer on the No Child Left Behind Act but reorganization was not a topic.

Bahe, who is also a Navajo Nation council delegate, argued that the changes -- which she characterized as top-heavy -- are in contravention to the mandates of the law. "Let's concentrate on the No Child Left Behind Act," she said. "Let's really look at the changes we need to make at the local level."

Relevant Links:
National Indian Education Association - http://www.niea.org
Office of Indian Education Programs, BIA - http://www.oiep.bia.edu

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