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Committee Statements

Rokita Statement: Hearing on "Examining Challenges Facing Native American Schools"

Nearly a century ago, the federal government made a promise to deliver to Native American children a quality education that preserves their customs and culture. Under the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Education, the federal government is expected to support the education of more than 40,000 students through approximately 185 elementary and secondary schools located on or near Indian reservations.

Unfortunately, the federal government is failing to keep its promise to these vulnerable children.

As reports from congressional committees, government watchdogs, investigative journalists, and academics have detailed, the state of BIE education is abysmal. Too many schools lack adequate infrastructure and educational resources, compromising the health, safety, and future postsecondary and professional opportunities of the children they are intended to serve. And it has been this way for far too long.

A 1969 Senate report from the Committee on Labor and Public Welfare describes the federal government’s failure to provide an effective education as a “national tragedy and a national disgrace” that has “condemned the [American Indian] to a life of poverty and despair.”

Despite countless calls for change, all we have seen is decades of inaction. As one of today’s witnesses chronicles in an acclaimed Minneapolis Star Tribune series on the failing BIE system, “federal neglect [continues to handicap] learning at BIE schools nationwide … Kids shivering in thin-walled classrooms or studying under leaky roofs year after year aren’t getting the education they need or deserve.”

A report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office further details these concerns. Entitled the “Bureau of Indian Education Needs to Improve Oversight of School Spending,” the report reveals a chronic failure to fix and replace decrepit and antiquated schools. The GAO cites a bungling bureaucracy that includes a lack of information to effectively monitor and fix the problems plaguing school facilities, as well as confusion and poor communication about who is actually responsible for addressing the various needs of these schools.

The details of these reports are sobering. However, words on paper will never fully convey the troubling state of Native American education. That is why members of the Education and the Workforce Committee have visited these schools to learn firsthand about the challenges they face.

This year, I have visited several BIE schools, including the Theodore Roosevelt Indian School and John F. Kennedy Indian School in Arizona with BIE director Dr. Monty Roessel, as well as the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Minnesota with Chairman John Kline.

The conditions at these schools are deplorable. Some classrooms lack desks, books, computers, pencils, and paper, while others lack proper flooring, roofing, and ventilation. Some schools are missing a working water heater. Others are missing front doors and are rodent-infested. And for many students, attending these unsafe and unhealthy schools is their only option.

Despite the many obstacles that stand in the way of these students and educators, their resiliency and determination to create better lives for themselves is nothing short of inspiring. They understand the importance of an education and the opportunities it will afford them. I’ve also met dedicated teachers and school administrators who are working hard to overcome these challenging conditions and help improve the lives of their students with quality educational opportunities.

It is paramount that we uphold our promise to provide Native American children an excellent education that preserves their tribal heritage. Though the current system poses significant challenges, turning a blind eye is not the answer. The federal government must live up to its responsibility.

We look forward to learning from our witnesses about the Bureau of Indian Education and the schools under BIE’s jurisdiction. I am confident today’s hearing will help advance real solutions that ensure Native American children have access to safe and healthy schools that support quality teaching and learning. 


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