Federal Schools for Native American Students Are Crumbling. Here's How to Fix Them.

Classrooms and hallways so cold children wear coats all day. Ceilings that leak year round. Buckled floors and broken doorways. A science classroom so poorly ventilated it can't be used for chemistry experiments.
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Classrooms and hallways so cold children wear coats all day. Ceilings that leak year round. Buckled floors and broken doorways. A science classroom so poorly ventilated it can't be used for chemistry experiments.

These are the conditions that the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe's high school students experience every day at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School in northern Minnesota. That's because their school is located in a dilapidated metal pole barn built to store vehicles.

I first visited Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig in 2009 and I was appalled by what I saw: one of the worst examples of what decades of neglect have done to schools for Native American children.

Under treaty and trust responsibilities dating back more than a century, the federal government has an obligation to provide an education for Native American children. It is very similar to the federal responsibility to educate children of Defense Department personnel at home and around the world.

More than 40,000 Native American students attend a school overseen by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), the federal agency tasked with providing a high-quality education in a safe and healthy setting.

Last year, the Bureau reported that more than a third of its 183 schools were in poor condition, requiring extensive renovation or - like the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig school - replacement.

At the Quileute Tribal School in Washington state, the campus frequently floods, with water lapping up against school buildings. The Chichiltah-Jones Ranch Community School in New Mexico experiences frequent power outages. And students at schools in every corner of the country take classes in overcrowded trailers.

These problems are not new. A 2001 Government Accountability Office report found that substandard facilities were endemic at schools run by both the Department of Defense for children of service members and the Department of the Interior for Native American children.

In response, the Defense Department embarked on an ambitious, multi-billion dollar construction initiative to transform its crumbling school buildings into state-of-the-art centers for learning.

The initiative worked. Today, the Defense Department's schools draw praise for designs that make it easier for teachers to teach and children to learn. President Obama's fiscal year 2017 budget proposal recognizes this success by providing an additional $246 million to renovate four more military base schools.

Yet there has been no similar comprehensive plan for fixing the schools that educate Native American children. Instead, they've continued to crumble.

Thousands of students who were in kindergarten at dilapidated BIE schools in 2004 - when BIE released a list of schools that urgently needed repairs - will graduate high school this year having been in substandard schools for their entire childhood.

I've heard pleas for better schools from students and tribal leaders across the country for years. There is no shortage of strong leadership and passionate advocacy on their part. But there has been a lack of political will in Congress to make the investments needed to bring their schools to an acceptable standard.

Earlier this month, however, we secured an important victory. After years of bipartisan work in Congress, the Department of the Interior announced that 10 school campuses have been identified for a new priority replacement list. And the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School will be replaced, with $11.9 million coming from a separate facilities account.

While this is good news for the students and families at Leech Lake, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the vast need for better school facilities across Indian Country.

It is time for the Department of the Interior to develop the same sort of comprehensive plan that has worked so well for Defense Department schools. An adequate plan would commit to extensive renovation or new facilities for all 78 schools that the BIE has identified as needing replacement.

With such a plan in place, it will fall to Congress to fulfill its moral and legal responsibilities and fully fund the needed construction projects.

Tackling this problem will require Democrats and Republicans to come together, just as we did in securing funding for the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School. Providing healthy and safe buildings where children can learn is not a partisan issue.

Our next president will also have to build on President Obama's highly-praised consultations with Native American tribes. She or he will have to insist that the Department of the Interior make Native American education a top priority.

With focus and resources, we can ensure that every Native American child goes to school in a healthy, safe environment where they can learn and grow.

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