CASPER, Wyo. — A national report released last week points to systemic failure in and proposes a massive overhaul for the federal agency in charge of some 180 schools for Native American students in the U.S., including one in Wyoming.
The Bureau of Indian Education no longer is a regulatory agency, the report says. Power over two-thirds of the nation's BIE-funded schools was transferred to tribes long ago, and the bureaucratic agency should be changed to reflect that.
The Bureau of Indian Education that's envisioned in the report would look more like today's U.S. Department of Education, offering competitive grants to promote better performance and provide technical assistance to schools. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell signed an order to redesign the BIE in two phases based on the proposals, which were released June 13.
Changes to Wyoming's lone BIE-funded school, St. Stephens Indian School, as a result of the proposed changes are still unclear, said Elma Brown, the school's former principal and rising superintendent.
She hopes any change in the agency's structure will result in less money being log-jammed in a bureaucratic system.
"So much of our money is pigeonholed, so our money is very structured," Brown said. "That is my hope, is that we will see more funding coming down, so we can get the support and resources that we need to our schools."
The report named a cadre of problems its authors said were systemic to Native American education in BIE-funded schools, including high teacher turnover, chronic academic failure and lack of consistent leadership. The BIE has had 33 directors since 1979, the report said. One in three BIE-funded schools in restructuring due to low academic performance.
In some ways, St. Stephens is an exception to the grim picture painted by the report, Brown said.
It is one of few schools that receives money from its home state, Brown said. Graduation rates for BIE students nationwide was 61 percent in 2011, according to the report. St. Stephens' graduation rate last year was 75 percent, Brown said.
St. Stephens is not as isolated as other BIE-funded schools referenced in the report, which explained the difficulty of finding and keeping good teachers in remote rural areas. Most teachers at St. Stephens live in nearby Riverton or Lander, providing a higher quality of life than in some other BIE school areas.
Brown said the agency would benefit from identifying common goals across the 23 states where its schools are located. Those states have different standards, different tests and different ways of calculating graduation rates. If the agency could settle on a consensus of what it wanted to see for outcomes across all states, students would benefit.
"Then we can better support each other," Brown said.
Mike Hejtmanek, outgoing superintendent of St. Stephens Indian School, said the BIE has served the school well in some areas, but not others.
"In certain areas, we wish the money would be distributed very differently," said Hejtmanek, who will retire this summer.
Funding from the BIE is divided into specific categories: operations, maintenance and special education, for instance. That gives schools less flexibility than under Wyoming's current block grant funding system, Hejtmanek said.
The BIE has the best interest of native students at heart, Brown said. Though the report has received some pushback from tribal leaders nationally who say the government is suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to native education, Brown supports the proposal and hopes the restructuring results in more money for schools.
"It’s a treaty responsibility to ensure native children get education," Brown said. "(Some of) those schools are so rural. Those students wouldn’t have an education system if it wasn’t for the BIE. Those are the students that we need to look out for."