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Bungling Bureaucracy Plagues Indian Education

The Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN), today held a hearing to learn about the Bureau of Indian Education, housed under the Department of Interior, and the significant challenges facing the schools it has a responsibility to support.

“As reports from congressional committees, government watchdogs, investigative journalists, and academics have detailed, the state of [Native American] education is abysmal,” Chairman Rokita said. “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.”

“There is much room for improvement in the BIE system,” said National Congress of American Indians President, Brian Cladoosby. Explaining the disappointing history of federal Indian education policy, he continued, “At the very basic level, tribes are seeking the fulfillment of the … trust relationship with the federal government.”

As Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial writer and Pulitzer finalist Jill Burcum described in her four-part series on BIE schools entitled, “Separate and Unequal,” these vulnerable children were promised a quality education that preserves their heritage and have been forced to attend deplorable schools.

Falling ceilings, broken water heaters, and electrical hazards are just a few of the problems plaguing students and educators, Burcum noted at the hearing. “You’d think that conditions like this would inspire urgency at the federal agencies that oversee these schools,” she said. “They haven’t … there’s a longstanding defeatism within the [Department of] Interior about improving conditions at BIE schools and an entrenched, spread-out bureaucracy too often focused on red tape for red tape’s sake and not on progress.”

Education, Workforce, and Income Security Director at the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, Melissa Emrey-Arras, described how “organizational fragmentation and poor communication” have inhibited the ability of the federal government to uphold its commitment to Native American children. She concluded, “Unless these issues are addressed, it will be difficult for Indian Affairs to ensure the long-term success of a generation of students.”

“Congress should demand action from the Department of Interior,” said Burcum. “The agency needs to overhaul its confusing, rigid bureaucracy.”

“Nobody can visit one of these schools and not say, ‘we need to fix this,’” remarked Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN). “We have a bureaucratic mess. We all owe it to these kids to get past the confusing [bureaucracy] and stop saying it’s somebody else’s problem. It’s time now for it to be all of our responsibility.”

To learn more about today’s hearing, read witness testimony, or to watch an archived webcast, visit



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