At a US Senate Committee on Indian Affairs roundtable discussion, tribal leaders and Indian Education specialists focused on challenges and the need for more tribal input in Indian education.
Charles Roessel, acting director for the Bureau of Indian Education, said there will be an increasing focus on instruction in the classroom, which some hope will include changing the framework of teaching and increasing the quality of teachers and instruction in the classroom.
Many tribal leaders, federal agencies, and representatives from Teach for America, American Indian Higher Education Consortium, TEDNA, and National Federation of Federally Impacted Schools expressed concern over the difficulties involved with hiring highly qualified teachers. If BIE schools cannot provide pensions or pay competitive salaries, teachers, especially those with high student loan payments, will teach elsewhere. One question posed was whether there was a way to get congressional relief for the student loans of tribal members who want to come home to teach.
Cecelia Fire Thunder, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, cited the report, Broken Promises, Broken Schools which focuses on deteriorating BIE schools, a significant problem across Indian country. A number of the BIE school facilities are not up to par with local public school systems, including schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Fire Thunder and Dayna Brave Eagle, director of Tribal Education in Pine Ridge, requested more of a voice in distribution of funds and crafting Indian education programs.
Bill Mendoza, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian and Alaska Native Education said there is a need to explore mechanisms for collaboration and cooperation between states and tribes.
Gov. Gregory Mendoza, Gila River, Arizona, said their 21,000 tribal members utilize a mix of schools including grant, public, and parochial. Gov. Mendoza joined the majority of speakers about the lack of clarity and role of tribal governments in education.
Tino Batt, Treasurer of the Fort Hall Business Council and tribal representative for the Shoshone-Bannock, said he is happy to see Indian Education coming to the fore. “We have had many different forums before, but education is one of our big issues and should be a top priority.”
Batt said it was important to have tribal leaders involved in decision making and funding. “The BIE is asking tribal leaders to prioritize top issues, and whenever we come together, education only comes up as a third or fourth priority, and that’s why you never see a big push. When it comes to top priority, it is usually law enforcement issues that come first,” Batt said. “There have been so many reports since Kennedy, and we are still in that process. It’s like we are moving one foot after the other. We need to get moving on this.”