How the Federal Government Continues To Victimize American Indians

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Upfront I will stipulate that the treatment of the American Indian by the federal government has been nothing less than an egregious nightmare. It is a case study in progressive paternalism that has enriched a small coterie of privileged contractors, provided a bevy of bureaucrats with job security and self-importance, and reduced the American Indian population still living on reservations to a dystopic and nightmarish existence.

Ground Zero of that progressive utopia is the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, a federal bureaucracy that notionally looks out for the best interests of the American Indian but in reality is equal parts corruption, incompetence, and a racial spoils system.

What follows next is a case that reminds you of the story about the British cavalry officer who was so stupid that even the horses began to take notice. This is corruption and incompetence of such Biblical proportions that even POLITICO had noticed: How Washington created some of the worst schools in America

The education of children living on Indian reservations comes under a part of the bureaucracy called the Bureau of Indian Education.

There have been three major legislative actions that restructured the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) with regard to educating American Indians since the Snyder Act of 1921. First, the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 introduced the teaching of Indian history and culture in BIA schools (until then it had been Federal policy to acculturate and assimilate Indian people by eradicating their tribal cultures through a boarding school system). Second, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (P.L. 93-638) gave authority to federally recognized tribes to contract with the BIA for the operation of Bureau-funded schools and to determine education programs suitable for their children. The Education Amendments Act of 1978 (P.L. 95-561) and further technical amendments (P.L. 98-511, 99-99, and 100-297) provided funds directly to tribally operated schools, empowered Indian school boards, permitted local hiring of teachers and staff, and established a direct line of authority between the Education Director and the AS-IA. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (P.L. 107-110) brought additional requirements to the schools by holding them accountable for improving their students’ academic performance with the U.S. Department of Education supplemental program funds they receive through the Bureau.

The Bureau of Indian Education operates two systems. There is a K-12 system:

In School Year 2007-2008, the 183 Bureau-funded elementary and secondary schools, located on 64 reservations in 23 states, served approximately 42,000 Indian students. Of these, 58 are BIE-operated and 125 are tribally operated under BIE contracts or grants.

And there is a post-secondary system of 36 Tribal Colleges and Universities that serves some 30,000 students.


It took 50 years for the federal government to admit officially that the education it had promised to provide Indian children was so bad it qualified as abuse. “Grossly inadequate,” wrote the authors of a scathing 1928 report. Forty years later, the feds were taking themselves to task again, in a report by Sen. Edward Kennedy that called the state of Indian education a “national tragedy.”

Flash forward 46 more years. The network of schools for Native American children run by an obscure agency of the Interior Department remains arguably the worst school system in the United States, a disgrace the government has known about for eight decades and never successfully reformed. Earlier this fall, POLITICO asked President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, about what is perhaps the federal government’s longest-running problem: “It’s just the epitome of broken,” he said. “Just utterly bankrupt.”

Tucked into the desert hills on a Navajo reservation 150 miles east of the Grand Canyon, Crystal has cracks running several feet down the walls, leaky pipes in the floors and asbestos in the basement. Students come from extremely troubled backgrounds, but there is no full-time counselor. Last year, a new reading coach took one look at the rundown cinder block housing and left the next day. Science and social studies have been cut to put more attention on the abysmal reading and math scores, but even so, in 2013 only 5 percent of students were considered to have grade-level math skills.

The Indian schools, at least in some areas, face challenges most public schools don’t face. Endemic poverty, chronic alcoholism, and apathetic despair the prevents many from believing success is possible and who see education as a waste of time:

Like a number of BIE schools, Many Farms allows students to board even though the school is on the reservation where the students live. It’s a welcome twist on the boarding schools to which Indian children were once banished. The dormitories at BIE schools, dilapidated as they can be, represent an improvement over many students’ homes, which often lack electricity and running water and where meals are not guaranteed.

The students don’t always look forward to going home, Benally said. “We hear a lot of, ‘Oh, we stayed home this weekend, and mom and dad went out drinking.’”

The fact is that a stable and supportive home environment are a necessary pre-condition to any child learning. Some small number can succeed without it, but for the average kid their performance in school is a direct reflection on the importance their parents place on performance. Stories like this (and I have to admit I am sort of shocked at seeing the “drunken Indian” appear in a POLITICO story, not because their isn’t a massive alcohol abuse problem on reservations but because of the un-PC nature of the observation) should not make anyone sanguine about the future of these children.

But let’s look at the underlying logic:

The 48,000 students unfortunate enough to attend BIE schools have some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country — even as the education they’re getting is among the nation’s most expensive: At $15,000 per pupil, the system costs 56 percent more than the national average.

“Frankly, we spend an enormous amount per student relative to other school systems for terrible results,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said.

A year ago, Obama decided to finally tackle the problem, a decision he pushed his team to make after an emotional visit to a Sioux reservation in the Dakotas. He told his Cabinet to “establish a pathway that leads to change” and that he would hold them accountable. His Interior Department has proposed a sweeping plan to allow more tribal control over the schools and rework the Bureau of Indian Education into a streamlined, modern school system — preferably before the end of Obama’s term. But resistance, both within the agency and on the reservations, is high. Critics say the changes are rushed and poorly communicated. They warn that paring back the federal government’s role will only make it easier to under-invest in schools that, by almost any measure, need money and resources the most.

The spending mentioned in the first paragraph is $720 million. And it isn’t like it is spent wisely:

Other government investigations have found numerous examples of embezzlement and misspent money. The GAO found that 24 BIE schools inappropriately spent $13.8 million during the first half of 2014. In a small but telling case, the Interior Department paid in advance for a $1.5 million bus garage, but when the project was completed the garage doors couldn’t close if a large bus was inside for repairs. In 2013, a BIE employee was convicted for embezzling more than $23,000 from a charity fund for school supplies, which she spent on clothing, salon visits and a trip to Las Vegas. In 2011, a group of tribal members had to repay $625,000 they had embezzled over roughly a year and a half from BIE school funds.

In fact, there is a great deal of doubt whether any amount of money will fix the problem:

Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) 39% (R-Okla.), a member of the Chickasaw Nation, told POLITICO that finding ways to encourage teachers to come teach at BIE schools through better housing or policies like student loan forgiveness could help the agency “attract and retain really top notch people” in classrooms.

…. Teachers at the BIE schools with the highest level of federal involvement earn salaries that are higher on average than teachers at other schools; a new teacher with a bachelor‘s degree earned a starting salary of $39,775 at a BIE school in 2011, compared to an average of $33,200 at a rural public school.

Would you, a non-Indian, teach on a reservation where you deal with a corrupt bureaucracy that dislikes you because you are not Indian, where the children aren’t ready to learn, and do it for the princely sum of $19/hr?

There is a great deal of evidence in the story that the BIE is not even capable of spending money wisely:

Like Clinton, Bush pushed for new construction for BIE schools. In 2004, the administration put out a list of the 14 schools in the poorest condition and began working on replacements. But 11 years later, two of the schools — both on the Navajo reservation — have yet to get replacements. The total cost would be $40 million. More schools fell into poor condition in the meantime; it would now take roughly $1.3 billion to bring the 60-plus schools that need new buildings up to shape, the Interior Department estimates.

A recap:

Number of students: 42,000

Number of schools: 183

Average students per school: 230

Required sq. ft. per student: 140 (approx)

Average sq. ft. per new school: 32,131

Proposed budget: $1,300,000,000

Dollars per school: $7,103,825

Dollars per sq. ft. of new construction: $221

School construction costs vary wildly depending upon the school district and amenities included. But here is an order of magnitude:

Anne Arundel County’s new Executive, Steve Schuh, recently noted that in his county “a new high school costs about $425 per square foot.”   In neighboring Howard County, it is about $325 per square foot. Cost data on the recent Richard Montgomery HS “Hilton Hotel-like” renovation in Rockville has been difficult to obtain, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be pretty.

Compare this to Texas public schools, where the average is about $155 per square foot. In the Houston region, efforts to rein in costs have moved it down to $135. The fast-growing Cy-Fair District in suburban Houston is building schools at $107 per square foot.   In other words, Texas is able to build more than two schools for the cost of one school in Maryland.  Amazingly, Houston’s cost-cutting efforts were spearheaded by citizen-minded construction companies more concerned about the waste and inefficiencies than their profits.

There’s more. North Carolina chimes in at $143 per square foot, while in neighboring Virginia it is $217, close to the average for the Mid-Atlantic region.   According to School Planning and Management Magazine, the nationwide average is a little over $200 per square foot.

The national average is $211/s.f. for elementary, $242/s.f. for middle, and $235/s.f. for high school.

For the price of repairing 60 or so buildings, the BIE could build 100% new schools. In a way this is a metaphor for the entire problem.The only answer is to throw more money at a system that fails by every metric. The idea of knocking down the current system and starting again from scratch simply is not on the table. Even when faced with the pervasive, endemic, multi-generational failure of the BIE, in the entire article the concept of block granting to tribes and giving them complete authority for community schools, shuttering Indian schools where non-reservation public schools are available, charter schools, or any other non-federal bureaucracy are simply not considered.

The Indian bureaucracy, BIA and BIE represent the very worst impulses of government: big, unwieldy, unresponsive to citizens, slavish to big contractors and the powerful, uncaring, and casually cruel. Where the BIA merely steals from today, the BIE steals the future. It is a national shame that this situation is allowed to persist.

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