Rebekah Blood, a reading support teacher in Montana who oozes enthusiasm for her subject, is getting great results at the tiny Two Eagle River School.
Her students, mostly members of the Salish and Kootenai tribes who live on the Flathead reservation in western Montana, are resoundingly poor — 100 percent are eligible for free or reduced priced lunch, the federal government’s measure of student poverty.
Just 12 percent of eighth-graders enter her classroom reading at a proficient level. But this year’s eleventh-graders, having spent four years under her guidance, are doing great — 76 percent test proficient in reading.
But for all her success, Blood might not have a job next year. Nor might the extra math support teacher, a social worker, the principal, two para-educators, a teacher coach, and two instructors in the Salish and Kootenai languages and one in tribal culture.
Two Eagle River School is run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and funded and overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education, an infamously dysfunctional agency within the U.S. Interior Department. Calls to the BIE’s office in Washington result in ring after ring before being picked up by a machine.
The money Two Eagle River has been using to pay for all those extra resources, about $2 million over four years, comes from federal School Improvement Grants, meant to do exactly what it has in Montana, substantially raise the academic achievement of students in the lowest-performing schools.
But the money runs out this year, and Two Eagle River officials are scrambling to find extra funding to retain at least some of those instructors.
The Obama administration launched a new plan to reconfigure the Bureau of Indian Education last year. It’s met with tepid response, and Congress has been slow to authorize any big boosts in spending, despite a request by the administration to add $138 million to the agency’s budget to help with reorganization, school construction, technology improvements and other initiatives.
In the meantime, the 110 students back at Two Eagle River and another roughly 48,000 at the other 182 schools on reservations across the country wait for politicians and bureaucrats in Washington to get their act together and finally live up to their promise to provide a good education — or, at least, not take away the one they have.
Little money, big results
At Two Eagle River, most of the problems come back to money, Superintendent Rodney Bird told a group of reporters and officials from the Montana Office of Public Instruction and Council of Chief State School Officers during an October visit.
Over the years, that tight funding has brought big changes. The school stopped taking seventh-graders and moved the eighth-grade class to the high school so they could close a satellite building that housed the middle school students.
Tribal culture teacher Cathy Topin no longer teaches students to cook because there isn’t money for supplies. She often pays for the materials from her own pocket for sewing projects, like beading and the quilts that decorate the school’s cafeteria.
The funding crunch “compounds itself in every classroom, the curriculum materials, all the way down to the support staff,” Bird said. “That’s the reality of what we work with.”
Two Eagle River and the other schools under the BIE’s purview, for the most part, only receive federal funding. Like the rest of the federal government, BIE schools have been subject to budget freezes and the automatic spending cuts that took effect in 2013 because Congress could not decide how to tame the federal deficit.
Those indiscriminate sequestration cuts hit Two Eagle River hard, wiping out $100,000 from its $2.1 million annual budget. The tribe chips in when it can, but hasn’t been able to add a lot to the coffers lately, and Montana doesn’t send any state dollars because Two Eagle is considered a private school.
Tribal schools are unlike state-run public schools on reservations, which also struggle for money but are eligible for Impact Aid grants. That funding is designed to soften the loss of revenue for schools located near military bases and reservations, federal land not subject to property taxes. Federal law prohibits Impact Aid from going to schools that receive most of their money from federal sources or those that don’t get state education aid. Bureau of Indian Education Schools usually fall into both categories. (Read The Seventy Four on how a public school on the Blackfeet reservation is doing school turnaround, Montana-style.)
All of those pinches mean Bird runs his school with a bare-bones budget of about $5,500 per pupil, nearly half the $10,400 average spent on students in other parts of Montana. Teachers, who are considered tribal employees, aren’t subject to the state’s collective bargaining laws and have been under a pay freeze for eight years.
Despite all those challenges, the school is getting results. Students are given tests three times a year to benchmark their progress. They know their scores and set a goal for what they want to achieve. Scores are rising, and more students and their families are choosing to attend Two Eagle River.
On Scene: Keeping Tribal Culture Alive in Montana's Schools
The school used to be a last resort for tribal students who were kicked out of other places for issues with grades or attendance or discipline. Now, though, “we’re not a safety net as much anymore as a school of choice,” Bird said in a phone interview in November.
Success, though, sometimes breeds its own problems.
It’s up to each tribe to decide who is eligible for membership, and therefore, federal tribal benefits, like healthcare and schooling. The Salish and Kootenai tribes, like many others across the country, have decided that tribal members must have at least a quarter tribal blood, so those are the only students whose schooling the Bureau of Indian Education will subsidize.
School officials, though, will admit students who don’t meet that requirement. They’ve accepted tribal foreign exchange students from Canada in the past, and last school year admitted two dozen students who had parents or grandparents who were members of the tribe but themselves didn’t meet the blood quantum requirements. Those extra students don’t come with extra dollars.
“If we have a bunch of descendants and our non-Indians that we get zero funding for, we’re just going to be that much shorter,” Bird said. “It’s a tough deal.”
For now, Bird and other school officials are losing sleep trying to find a way to cover all of their budget shortfalls while retaining Blood, the reading specialist, and the other members of the staff whom students have come to love.
“It’s a very touchy situation. We’re looking for funds, we’re looking for some way,” Bird said.
Staff will write new grants, and they’re working with state Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy on a legislative fix so they can get state dollars. The Montana legislature next meets in January 2017 (state lawmakers only convene in odd numbered years).
Some of the students realize there will be a change next year, though staff have yet to tell them all the specifics, Bird said.
The loss of Rollie Sullivan, the principal/dean of students, will be particularly tough on the teenagers, Bird said. Sullivan “has an excellent rapport with the students. They’re going to miss that.”
When Sullivan is gone, Bird will have three jobs: superintendent, principal, and teacher coach, so won’t have the time to interact with students like the current principal does.
“I can’t put in that kind of time and do what he does and build that kind of relationship. It has to be limited because I have to balance the time somehow,” he said.
Staff at Two Eagle River have also struggled with the bureaucracy of the BIE.
A regional BIE office in Billings was closed last school year. Staff weren’t sure for months who would be their liaison to Washington, until they were finally temporarily assigned to someone in Albuquerque.
“It was just a matter of they closed an office that was really useful, and now it’s just a process for everyone to get on the same page and work things out,” Bird said. Money was held up in bureaucratic mishaps for three months, too.
BIE Executive Director Charles “Monty” Roessel in an interview said the closure of the Billings office was unrelated to the broader agency reorganization and Two Eagle River staff were quickly notified of their assignment to another office in Seattle. The agency’s office in Albuquerque serves the same functions as a state education department, handling the system’s School Improvement Grants. Maybe that was the source of the confusion, he said.
Bird says he and his staff will make it work regardless of management gaps, miscommunication and lost funding. His predecessor, after all, managed to keep the school going for the 30 years she was in charge.
“We’ve had a lot of longevity with the staff. They’re here for the right reasons,” Bird said. “It’s going to be challenging for the staff, and if everyone comes together, I think we’ll do it.”
Reversing ‘A National Tragedy’
The problems for the Bureau of Indian Education are much broader, of course, than those facing the students at Two Eagle River.
In fact, Two Eagle River is, in many ways, in a better spot than a lot of BIE schools. The physical space, a tan one-story building just off I-93, the main drag through the Flathead reservation, is in good condition, unlike a lot of other bureau schools.
The Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in Minnesota, the subject of a series of columns that was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, has become the poster school for BIE reconstruction. Students at the school attended classes in a metal pole barn so flimsy that they had to wear jackets indoors and evacuate in high winds. The bureau last updated its priority list of schools in need of repair in 2004.
A study group convened by the bureau in 2013 to reorganize it to better serve students found that only one in four schools under the agency’s purview met state-defined proficiency standards, and American Indian students at BIE schools performed lower than their peers in traditional schools.
The agency is a legacy from centuries of, at best, inadequate and, at times, outright racist attempts by the federal government at educating Native American children.
“There is a painful history, a failure, on the part of the country, to serve native youth well,” John King, the incoming U.S. education secretary, told a summit of tribal nations in early November.
Much of the problem comes from the sheer number of people involved. Line officers in the states represent a middle layer of bureaucracy between school leaders and the national office in Washington. In D.C., the problem isn’t much better: the agency has an inherently educational mission, but it’s overseen by the larger Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is part of the Interior Department, whose focus is the National Park Service and natural resource management.
The BIE itself can’t say how many employees it has. Officials think it’s very roughly 7,000, counting all the teachers and other staff at schools on reservations. Some tribes don’t report their staff numbers to headquarters in Washington, though, so no one can be sure. Leaving out educators and others who work in schools, there’s about 150 positions in field offices and in Washington. Only 96 are currently filled as the agency is under a hiring freeze while it waits for Congress to OK the reorganization. Once that occurs, agency jobs could grow to 196.
In Congress, the BIE falls under the jurisdiction of the Senate Committee on the American Indian and the House Committee on Natural Resources. The Appropriations committees in both chambers have to write the bills to pony up the funding, and although members will consider a new spending bill in the coming days, the BIE is unlikely to be among the big winners.
The BIE has a budget of about $810 million, including money for tribal colleges. K-12 programs get another $200 million or so from the Education Department.
The agency is also waiting on the Appropriations Committee to give the go-ahead to the reorganization. “Every time the phone rings, every time we get an email, we hope that might be the approval,” Roessel said.
He’s hopeful that once the committee clears the annual spending measure, members will have more time to focus on the reorganization. “We’re not trying to hurry. Congress will make a decision when they’re ready,” he said.
That’s not to say leaders elsewhere in Washington aren’t already trying to fix it.
Congressional committees have held hearings to draw attention to the agency, particularly in light of damning reports by the Government Accountability Office detailing problems with spending oversight and bureaucratic snafus.
Over years of reports, the government watchdog has detailed a litany of problems at the agency.
One year, the BIE directed 21 schools to administer tests that couldn’t be used to measure the yearly academic progress goals required under No Child Left Behind. In another instance, the GAO said, an experienced speech therapist was fired in favor of one with a less expensive contract. That new therapist, though, was in a different state and couldn’t get to the school where a student needed services, violating the student’s rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
School construction has been equally mismanaged. At one school, for example, roofs replaced in 2010 to the tune of $3.5 million have been leaking since their installation. They still were in 2014, GAO said. At another school, a high voltage electrical panel in the cafeteria kitchen was put next to the dishwasher, an obvious safety hazard.
“Indian Affairs has been hampered by systemic management challenges related to BIE’s programs and operations that undermine its mission to provide Indian students with quality education opportunities and safe environments that are conducive to learning,” the watchdog wrote in a 2015 report.
Rep. John Kline, the chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, in a rare move for a Republican, wrote a letter in March to the Appropriations Committee asking it to meet the Obama administration’s $133 million funding request for the construction of new BIE schools.
“The federal government has made a commitment to American Indian students and families to provide educational opportunities in a manner that preserves their culture, language, and traditions. Unfortunately, we are failing to meet that commitment,” Kline wrote.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, an advocacy group representing the state education secretaries, has also focused on the issue. Staff help unwind the bureaucratic layers BIE schools encounter when they’re dealing with Washington, and they added the BIE leader to the group about five years ago.
“We felt like they were responsible for groups of kids in our states, and we needed to have them at the table in these conversations,” said Executive Director Chris Minnich.
The Education Department in November gave out almost $2.5 million in grants to tribes to better coordinate their work with state education agencies and schools, both traditional public ones and those overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education.
The Salish and Kootenai tribes got $287,000, which they hope to use to set up data sharing and improve professional development to help teachers design more culturally relevant curriculum, said Bill Swaney, chair of the tribal education department.
It won’t go to fill in the gaps at Two Eagle River though. “We’ve worked with the school to try to identify some funding sources, but this money wouldn’t be used for instruction,” Swaney said.
The Obama administration, too, is trying to fix the agency more broadly.
For all programs serving Native Americans, the administration has tried to encourage more cooperation among the different agencies that deal with tribes — Education, Interior, the Justice Department, and Health and Human Services, for instance.
Last spring, Obama became the first sitting U.S. president to visit a reservation when he traveled to Standing Rock in North Dakota.
“There’s no denying that for some Americans the deck has been stacked against them, sometimes for generations,” Obama said. “And that’s been the case for many Native Americans. But if we’re working together, we can make things better. We’ve got a long way to go. But if we do our part, I believe that we can turn the corner. We can break old cycles. We can give our children a better future.”
The president’s speech came in conjunction with the broad new plan to reorganize the bureau. It’s aimed at ending BIE control at the 57 schools it still operates and letting tribes take over those schools the way the Salish and Kootenai tribe runs Two Eagle River. It also shifts focus so the agency becomes less a direct provider of education and more an office that supports tribes as they educate their own Native American children.
There hasn’t been such an emphasis on Indian education in Washington since the late Sen. Ted Kennedy issued a report in 1969 called “Indian Education: A National Tragedy, A National Challenge,” Roessel said in an interview. There is a “broad bipartisan agreement” that leaders must focus on Indian education, both in the classroom and in the physical condition of reservation schools, he said. “This is a big deal.”
There reorganization has broad support “for the most part,” Roessel said, noting that several groups, including the National Congress of Indians and National Indian Education Association, have passed favorable resolutions.
Although the new structure has been accepted a little more cautiously in some corners, “I think everyone agrees something needs to be done,” he said. “The current status is unacceptable and we have to do something to improve the outcomes and improve the quality of education and I think this is a good step as we move forward.”