Secretary Zinke suggests more money won't help Indian education

The new leader of the Department of the Interior is defending the Trump administration's Indian education cuts amid push-back from key members of Congress.

During an appearance on Capitol Hill on Thursday, Secretary Ryan Zinke said the federal government spends far more money per capita on Indian students than it does elsewhere. Yet the "results are far worse," he said, a reference to high drop out rates and low achievement levels.

"We have to have a candid discussion on how to provide better service for Indian education," Zinke told members of the House Committee on Appropriations.

That candid discussion, however, does not appear to include more funds for the Bureau of Indian Education. President Donald Trump is seeking to reduce all aspects of the agency's budget, from construction and maintenance to the operation of the schools themselves.

"We are failing on Indian education and more money may not be the answer," Zinke testified. "But we need to have a conversation to provide the service and the hope and the opportunity for every kid in America."

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Department of the Interior - Budget Hearing June 8, 2017

While the testimony overall was well received by members of the committee, several said they weren't happy with the president's request, which Zinke repeatedly described as representing a "balanced budget." Lawmakers from both parties vowed to work together counteract Trump's proposal as they write and advance the department's spending bill this summer.

"These cuts in some of these Indian programs are just not acceptable," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), who is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation. "This is the poorest part of our population."

"You don't balance the budget on the back of your poorest citizens," Cole added. "Quite frankly, in this case, these are treaty obligations."

And even though Zinke didn't offer any proposals to address Indian education, some Republicans are more than willing to step up with their own -- and more funding isn't on the table either. In contrast, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona) is seeking to divert money from the BIE with his proposal for "school choice" in Indian Country.

Under S.1924, the Native American Education Opportunity Act, tribes will be able to establish "education savings accounts" with BIE funds and use the money to pay for tutors, online education and maybe even tuition at private schools. In announcing the bill, McCain cited the same statistic as Zinke -- the federal government spends about $15,000 per capita on Indian students, he said, nearly twice the amount spent elsewhere.

HouseAppropsGOP on YouTube: Department of the Interior Budget

“The federal government is failing in its responsibility to provide quality education to Native American children,” McCain said in a press release.

The shifts in policy fly in the face of what Indian Country leaders have been telling Congress for decades. Tribal schools have long been severely underfunded and they face unique challenges -- such as transporting students long distances over dangerous roads -- that make per capita spending comparisons unfair, they argue.

And limited maintenance budgets force Indian children to study in potentially harmful conditions. The Government Accountability Office has repeatedly slammed the BIE for lapses in safety checks, including a situation where students and staff were exposed to life-threatening levels of carbon monoxide.

"We cannot simply wait for funding that is unlikely to come," Chief Bill John Baker of the Cherokee Nation told the House Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies last month. "The challenges are too great, and the consequences of delay are too grave."

The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California). He said the federal government must live up to its "legal and moral obligations" to tribes and their citizens by providing adequate funding.

"In a bipartisan fashion, under both Republican and Democratic chairmen, this subcommittee has made a concerted effort to address the greatest needs in Indian Country," Calvert said. "Education, health care and law enforcement issues continue to be a non-partisan subcommittee priority."

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), the top Democrat on the panel, echoed those concerns. She said Trump's budget "dishonors our commitment to Native Americans."

"This budget ignores that obligation ignores that obligation and cuts Indian programs by $372 million, or 13 percent," McCollum said.

The Bureau of Indian Education continues to falter on school inspections, according to the Government Accountability Office. Inspection reports continue to be late and many are "incomplete, inaccurate, or unclear," the GAO said. Source: Further Actions Needed to Improve Oversight and Accountability for School Safety Inspections

The subcommittee typically spends the month of June writing Interior's appropriations bill. The goal is to get it to the floor of the U.S. House and, eventually, the U.S. Senate before the start of a new fiscal year on October 1.

For most of the past decade, though, that hasn't happened. Congress instead passes "omnibus" appropriations bills that include just modest increases for tribal programs despite the efforts of Calvert's subcommittee, which including hearing from dozens of leaders, representing every region of Indian Country, during four sessions last month.

The $15,000 per pupil figure cited by Zinke and McCain appears to come from a 2014 GAO report about school spending. What both left out was that figure reflects higher transportation other costs in Indian Country.

For example, the BIE spends an average of $1,014 per pupil on transportation, compared to just $444 at public schools nationwide. Operation and maintenance costs are also higher on reservations, according to the report.

House Committee on Appropriations Notice:
Department of the Interior - Budget Hearing (June 8, 2017)

Government Accountability Office Reports:
Actions Needed to Address Serious Weaknesses in Federal Management of Programs Serving Indian Tribes (May 24, 2017)
Actions Needed to Better Manage Indian School Construction Projects (May 24, 2017)
Further Actions Needed to Improve Oversight and Accountability for School Safety Inspections (May 24, 2017)

Department of the Interior Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Documents:
Budget in Brief | Indian Affairs Highlights | Department Office Highlights [includes Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians]

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