It's tough predicting what the US Supreme Court will do, but modern politics might change that.
BIE Officials Face Pushback When Implementing Agency Reforms
In 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education launched a reform effort to improve student outcomes in its school system. About 10 percent of Native American children attend a BIE school. The plan involves shifting many of its schools that are still under federal oversight to tribal.
Some education officials are optimistic about the idea, but many are concerned the effort is just another empty promise from the federal government.
It's officially known as the Blueprint For Reform. The plan was released in the summer of 2014, roughly a year after Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee that "Indian education is an embarrassment to you and to us" in a 2013 hearing.
Factors driving Jewell to say this? The system is plagued by "chronic academic failure". Fourth-graders in BIE schools are scoring at least 15 points lower on standardized tests than their public school counterparts and graduation rates hover around 50 percent.
Interior Department officials hope giving tribes more control, along with a host of other system reforms, will help them turn the schools around. BIE Director Dr. Charles Monty Roessel said tribes have been asking for the opportunity to hold more accountability in the performance of the school system.
At one time the BIE directly oversaw operations for all of its schools. Today, tribes have regained control of about two thirds though all of these schools are still completely federally funded.
For the remaining third still run by the federal government, a shift to tribal control is being promoted on a voluntary basis. But the move is complicated and it gets even more complex when a tribe has more than one BIE school on its reservation. That’s because the BIE is encouraging those tribes to run the schools more like a district, rather than individually. And it’s a move that’s drawing a lot of pushback. Many school boards on the Navajo Nation oppose the reform efforts.
Attorney David Gomez is the legal counsel for six of them.
"The BIE reform effort that’s going on in D.C. right now looks to be basically like shuffling chairs around and putting up new name plates," said Gomez, adding the reforms are really "not going to have much of an impact out in the field".
On the Navajo Nation there are a total of 66 BIE schools. Thirty-two are still run by the BIE. According to Gomez the school boards, he works with believe the tribe is not prepared to administer a consolidated school district of that size.
"According to the feasibility study that’s been done for this proposal, the Navajo nation hasn’t even figured out how to administer the personnel systems for all these schools," Gomez said.
He explained a shift to a district model would actually mean less local control. As it works now, each BIE school has its own school board with members from the local community, but not necessarily tribal lawmakers. Gomez argues the district model violates the federal Tribally Controlled Schools Act and is actually an infringement on tribal sovereignty.
"There is a provision in there that says the BIE shall not change its grants to individual schools solely for administrative convenience, which this sounds like to me," he said.
And he added Navajo law currently requires the school boards to have control over education.
But Dr. Tommy Lewis, superintendent of the Navajo Department of Diné Education, contends tribal legislation can change that and shifting more administrative control to a central Navajo education agency would be a good thing. He points to reports from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found organizational mismanagement and fraud in the current system.
"Some of them are in for the right reasons. Majority, they do the right thing, they're very committed," explained Lewis. "But there are some have learned to manipulate the system for their personal gain, and students are sometimes not the priority. And audits show that they over spend on the amount that’s allocated for schools boards. That’s a concern."
It’s a concern for the BIE as well. BIE Director Roessel acknowledges there have been problems but argues some of those audit results are the product of an old administration and hopes the new structure will improve things.
"In the past it was primarily about tribal communities now it’s more about tribal governments," said Roessel. "Tribes getting involved, setting standards and then being able to enforce those standards."
Opposition to the reform efforts isn’t just limited to the Navajo Nation. Voices speaking out against it are adding up across Indian Country. In fact, the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe in the Dakotas has challenged the reforms in court.
But administrative change is only part of the reform equation. The agency is also changing the way it prioritizes school replacement and construction projects. We’ll take a closer look at that system in part four of our series.
EDITOR’S NOTE (12/3/2015): The position of Dr. Charles Monty Roessel has been corrected.