Franken, others express concern about dismal conditions in struggling Indian schools

Sen. Franken poses questions to panelists during an Indian Affairs Committee hearing last Thursday.
Sen. Franken poses questions to panelists during an Indian Affairs Committee hearing last Thursday.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Three of the four federally supervised Indian schools in northern Minnesota failed to meet federal testing standards last year, yet they aren’t likely to see much of the cash being doled out to public schools across the country under the Obama administration’s signature education reform plan.

Two of them are also sorely in need of physical repairs or replacement, and have been for years. Yet, at current funding levels, the money to fix them may not arrive for years, possibly decades.

“No student in Minnesota should have to contend with mold problems or huge leaks, but that’s what kids in some reservation schools deal with every day,” said Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, a member of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Students can’t be expected to achieve at high levels when their school building is falling apart.”

The four schools, all in northern Minnesota, are among 183 schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education, which is managed under the Department of the Interior. The Bureau acts like a giant, nationwide school district, one of just two federal agencies that directly manage schools (the Department of Defense is the other).

Bureau of Indian Education schools in Minnesota

Bureau of Indian Education schools in Minnesota

1. Circle of Life School, White Earth, MN
2. Bug-O-Nay-Ge Shig School, Bena, MN
3. Nay-Ah-Shing School, Onamia, MN
4. Fond du Lac Ojibwe School, Cloquet, MN

Failure leads to sanctions, restructuring
Under federal No Child Left Behind rules, a certain percentage of students at each school must score at or above grade level on state standardized tests in order for the school to meet expectations. If they don’t, the school fails. Each failure leads down a ladder of progressively stricter sanctions, to the ultimate penalty: restructuring.

Typically, restructuring means sweeping changes to the curriculum, accompanied by things like longer school days or years. In extreme cases, however, measures can be more drastic. Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm appointed an emergency financial manager to all but take over the Detroit Public Schools, while a school district in Central Falls, R.I., fired every single teacher, administrator and assistant at its perennially failing Central Falls High School.

Three of the four BIE schools in Minnesota are currently one rung removed from being ordered to restructure.

“It is unjust to expect our students to succeed academically when we fail to provide them with a proper environment to achieve success,” said Patricia Whitefoot, president of the National Indian Education Association.

Race to the Top
Those problems are not unique to Minnesota, Whitefoot said. Just 24 percent of Indian schools met federal testing standards, compared to 70 percent of public schools nationally. Programs have been launched across the Bureau of Indian Affairs to increase the number of schools meeting testing standards, and reports indicate those have borne some fruit.

“Education is critical to ensuring a viable and prosperous future for tribal communities and American Indians,” said Larry Echo Hawk, assistant secretary for Indian affairs.

Larry Echo Hawk
Larry Echo Hawk

The signature education effort of the Obama administration thus far has been Race to the Top, a program that acts more like a carrot than a stick. States (and, in later funding rounds, districts), submit grant applications detailing how they plan to reform in hopes of being awarded a large pot of money to put their plan into action. Minnesota’s application, for one, seeks $330 million in funding to link student performance to teacher evaluations and mandate participation in the state’s Q Comp performance pay system, among other things.

No set-aside provision
Typically, federal programs like that will contain a specific set-aside for Indian schools, given that they wouldn’t otherwise see money funded to states because they’re not run by the states. Race to the Top didn’t include such a provision.

Rep. Betty McCollum called that a “simple oversight,” and introduced a bill in January to set aside 1 percent of the remaining Race to the Top funds for Indian schools, a measure that Reps. Collin Peterson, Jim Oberstar, Tim Walz and Keith Ellison have signed on to as cosponsors.

That bill was referred to the House Education and Labor Committee, where it remains.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the schools may be able to apply in a second-round application process (though there’s no guarantee they’d win), but stressed in an interview earlier this month that the problems facing Indian schools are much broader than Race to the Top could fix.

“I don’t have an easy answer, but it’s way beyond Race to the Top,” Duncan said. “These aren’t our schools, but we want to do everything we can to help strengthen them.”

Facilities in disrepair
Indian schools face similar problems to those of rural schools — a difficulty in attracting top teachers not least among them — but also have unique challenges. The quality of life on many reservations is poor, with increased rates of unemployment, alcoholism and domestic violence, as well as lingering tensions between some tribes and the federal government that trace their way back through sometimes centuries of broken treaties and promises.

*Note: P/A is the combined number of students who scored as proficient or advanced in that respective subject
Source: Bureau of Indian Education
*Note: P/A is the combined number of students who scored as proficient or advanced in that respective subject

But one particularly striking problem facing the schools is the quality of the school buildings themselves.

About one-third of Indian schools — 64 in all, including Bug-O-Nay-Ge Shig School in Bena — are listed as being in “poor condition,” but a lack of funding for school construction means it could be years, possibly decades until the school is brought up to an acceptable level. [PDF]

The math isn’t pretty. President Obama’s Fiscal 2011 budget proposed an effective cut of $9 million to Indian school construction. The estimated cost to replace a BIE school runs about $30 to $50 million, while the president’s budget contains just $52.8 million for Indian school construction. The total cost of improving every “poor condition” school: $1.3 billion.

Source: Bureau of Indian Affairs

“At this level of funding, it would take 30 years to clear the backlog” and bring all Indian schools into acceptable condition, said Indian Affairs Chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs maintains a separate, more critical “Replacement School Construction Priority” list, which ranks the 14 Indian schools in “most need of replacement of their core academic and/or dormitory facilities.” The most recent list was published in March of 2004.

Sixth on that list is Circle of Life Survival School, in White Earth. Franken’s office said nothing has changed since then that would remove Circle of Life from the list.

“The people need to know what dismal conditions these schools are in,” Franken said. “Only then will Indian schools become a priority in the federal budget.”

Derek Wallbank is MinnPost’s Washington correspondent.


An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Nay Ah Shing did not make Adequate Yearly Progress as defined by federal testing standards in the 2008-09 school year. The school did meet the standards, though it remains on the second-lowest rung of the federal disciplinary ladder.

Individual school report cards can be found here.


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by Cheryl Wisecup on 03/01/2010 - 12:33 am.

    Mold can cause serious health problems. For accurate information about the health effects of mold, go to

  2. Submitted by Mac Riddel on 03/01/2010 - 09:14 am.

    Maybe it’s time for a radical idea…maybe the richer Indian nations (ie. Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community) should share some of their great wealth with their poorer brothren? Or…stop allowing native americans from buying up public land, thereby keeping such land ON the tax rolls so that the federal gov’t has more money in order to give to these remote reservations?

  3. Submitted by Peggy Flanagan on 03/01/2010 - 11:20 am.

    You’re missing the point. This isn’t about other sovereign nations sharing their wealth. It is about the failure of the Federal government to honor the agreements made with Native Americans. American Indians were promised health care and education in exchange for land, i.e. the United States of America.

  4. Submitted by Charles Senkler on 03/01/2010 - 11:38 am.

    With the BILLIONS taken by the American Indian Casinos (untaxed) you would think there would be a few bucks left over to fix a window or buy a book.
    There’s plenty of money out there but little commen sense.
    The state stands to gain $500,000,000 (that’s five hundred million) by allowing five PULL TAB machines in legally licensed on sale locations.
    Pull Tabs are a legal form of gameing in the state and the only thing stopping it and the help to every ones schools are the AI Lobbyists.

  5. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 03/01/2010 - 01:01 pm.

    As Peggy Flanagan writes, you are all missing the point. Essentially, we stole the Indian lands, made treaties with them that we subsequently broke, forced them to leave their lands, or forced them onto other reservations. We logged their lands and cleared them and white settlers moved in–the history of our treatment of our Indian neighbors has been astoundingly brutal.
    Finally, some (far from all; most Indian tribes remain poverty stricken) were able to set up casinos and they used the money to establish hospitals and schools and help their people.
    Now, here come the white people again, wanting to grab what they have.
    I believe they do share, by the way, but it’s time we began respecting them and their treaty rights and quick looking to them to solve OUR financial problems.

  6. Submitted by ellen wolfson on 03/01/2010 - 01:16 pm.

    When are we going to get our priorities straight. We seem never to look at the long term goals or cost. Just as in health care it is better to do prevention than repair, surely it is cheaper to educate a child than to imprison a homeless, alcoholic adult.

  7. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/01/2010 - 05:16 pm.

    Hey Mac and Charles, do you also propose requiring that richer white people give their wealth to poor white people? Or is sharing the wealth just for Indians? How sweet to say this to conservatives: you’re awfully generous with other people’s money.

  8. Submitted by Ron Gotzman on 03/01/2010 - 07:40 pm.

    Maybe the Native American Tribes could divert some of their special interest political funds from the DFL and invests them for “the children.”

  9. Submitted by Ginny Martin on 03/01/2010 - 09:25 pm.

    Only the DFL pays any attention to minorities, the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, the homeless. That’s why the tribes give the DFL money. Indians are not “special interests.” They are our neighbors and friends and sometimes relatives; I have Indian relatives.
    Few Republicans and conservatives have any useful ideas about these human concerns. They simply mock them, make fun of them, apparently think “they’re just Indians,” or maybe “they’re just Blacks,” or maybe they are just the poor, or the old, or children, and can be brushed off with a joke, without a single thought for their real plight.
    I am sickened by this lack of concern and empathy and ignorance of the social contract. The only special interest I know of are rich white people, and they get plenty of attention. They simply cannot understand we are all in the same boat–our beautiful blue boat. And they ignore us and others at their peril. The country eventually suffers from–guess what?–unemployment, despair, poverty, failure to educate our young, failure to heal the sick and broken people among us.
    Start trying to be a human being!

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/02/2010 - 11:54 am.

    One thing Minnesota CAN do is to renounce No Child Left Behind’s money and policies. This program, in spite of punishing rather than helping schools, is mandated by the federal government but not fully funded, leaving the state to come up with the rest of the money.

    However many millions of dollars we might save, it would all be available to help schools that need money — not further deprivation — to solve their problems.

    At least the latest Washington plan is voluntary.

  11. Submitted by Jason Long on 03/12/2010 - 02:04 pm.

    I work at Nay Ah Shing School and have for twelve years. Not all the information in this article is true. Nay Ah Shing did make AYP last year. Please don’t insult our students and their accomplishments by printing false information. There are web sites anyone can visit and find information regarding any school. Although I can appreciate some of the direction and attention this article is calling for, I do not appreciate taking accomplishments away from children. The staff at Nay Ah Shing are top notch and it is my priveledge to work for this community.

  12. Submitted by Derek Wallbank on 03/12/2010 - 03:20 pm.

    Thank you Jason for pointing out that error. I went back and looked at the BIE’s data again and you’re right, Nay Ah Shing did meet federal testing standards last year. The story has now been corrected, and I apologize for the error. -DW

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