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Committee reviews challenges and opportunities for Native Children in public schools

U.S. SENATE — Today, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held the second in a series of oversight hearings focused on Indian education. Today’s hearing was dedicated to the educational needs of Native American students in public schools.

“Many leaders and advocates for Indian education know that a quality education system can help lift communities out of poverty and alleviate many of the symptoms associated with poverty,” said Chairman Jon Tester (D-MT). “There are some inspiring successes in culturally relevant public education for Native students. We need to find ways to duplicate those programs across Indian Country.”

The goal of today’s hearing was to gather information so the Committee can make policy decisions to improve the quality of education for Native Americans and ensure they have the tools they need to graduate from high school.

William Mendoza, Executive Director of the White House Initiative on American Indian/Alaska Native Education said, “Looking at the high school graduation rates and drop-out rates for 2011, we see American Indian and Alaska Native students dropout at a rate that is nearly twice that of all students. In fact, Native students account for the highest dropout rate of any racial or ethnic population.”

Mandy Smoker Broaddus of the Montana Office of Public Instruction said, “The achievement gap in Montana and across this country is very real, and the solutions are multi-dimensional and complex. We need better approaches to realize stronger, healthier, more stable, and better educated families and communities. Policy and regulations need to take in to consideration the unique relationship American Indian tribes have with the federal government as sovereign nations, and as such their children in public schools are impacted by policies and regulations that fail to be culturally responsive and culturally sensitive.”

The hearing also focused on providing public schools the funding they need in a timely fashion.

It is estimated that between 90 and 95 percent of all Indian students in the United States attend public schools which are funded by the Impact Aid Program. Approximately 1,350 public school districts nationwide receive Impact Aid payments.

The draconian budget cuts known as “sequestration” forced a 5.2 percent cut to Impact Aid funding as well as delayed payments to school districts last fiscal year. A bipartisan budget agreement, supported by Chairman Tester, ended sequestration in December.

The Committee heard compelling testimony about how delays in Impact Aid payments are putting a strain on public school systems that educate Native students.

Brent D. Gish, Executive Director, of the National Indian Impacted Schools Association said, “Faced with a reduction in Impact Aid funding, our districts sought ways to absorb the loss in funding in a variety of ways including increasing class size; deferring facility maintenance; reducing instructional staff; reducing support staff; reducing course offering including culturally relevant classes; reducing technology replacement and expanded student usage.”

The superintendent of a school district within the Tohono O’odham Nation of Sells, Arizona discussed ways to succeed with limited resources.

Dr. Alberto Siqueiros School Superintendent of the Baboquivari Unified School District said, “We believe that a community with high expectations will result in a quality educational system. These efforts will positively impact the health and wellness, economic prosperity, and quality of life of the Tohono O’odham for generations to come.”

Chairman Tester vowed to continue pushing for productive changes in Native education to help equip Native youth, educators and communities with the tools necessary to succeed. He asked for further review of successful programs that could be implemented in other areas of Indian Country.

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