WASHINGTON — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told a Senate panel Wednesday that “Indian education is embarrassing” as she laid out her priorities on issues affecting Native Americans and Alaska Natives.
Jewell made her first appearance as Interior secretary before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. The Interior Department includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which oversees a school system for Native Americans.
Jewell said some $2 billion has been spent on American Indian schools over the past decade and that dozens of schools remain in poor condition. She also said across-the-board federal budget cuts have forced a $40 million reduction to Indian education spending.
“Indian education is embarrassing to you and to us,” Jewell said.
After the hearing, Jewell said she has not yet been on a tour of schools — she was sworn in on April 12 — but has been told of the serious condition of some of the schools serving Native American children.
“When we have a number of schools identified as in poor condition, that’s not what we aspire to,” she said.
In written testimony, Jewell said the $2 billion in spending had reduced the number of schools from more than 120 to 63, but she stated that the “physical state of our schools remains a significant challenge.” Jewell testified that 68 schools were in poor condition but later said the number in written testimony, 63, was accurate.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked about the state of school repairs in his opening remarks before Jewell testified. He said in a school on a reservation in his state is “desperate, desperate” for replacement and deals regularly with leaky roofs, mold, rodent infestations and sewer problems.
“When the wind starts blowing at a certain rate, they have to leave the school because it doesn’t meet the safety standards. This can be when it’s 20 below zero in northern Minnesota. It puts the Indian education system to shame,” Franken said.
There is a $1.3 billion backlog on Indian school construction projects, Franken said. Even so, the president did not request new funding for rebuilding schools, “leaving thousands of Indian children to study in crumbling and even dangerous buildings. This is unacceptable,” he said.
Further pressed on the issue by Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., Jewell said her agency “cannot repair and replace schools without money.” She said her agency has made what happens in the classroom and repairs, rather than new school construction, the spending priorities for 2014.
She said she raised the issue of seeking help from philanthropic organizations while in the car on the way to the hearing, but federal law may limit that idea.
“I know a learning environment where people feel respected is more conducive to high-quality learning than to one where children don’t feel value,” she said.
Many of the other issues discussed in the hearing had been ongoing issues such as energy production on tribal lands, protecting tribal homelands, law enforcement on reservations and child welfare.
Also in the hearing, Jewell discussed the effect of budget cuts on fighting and preventing wildfires. She said her agency has a “Sophie’s Choice” regarding firefighting funding. She said there is not enough money for hazardous fuel reduction, so the focus is on fire suppression “because we don’t have enough money to support both.”
In the William Styron novel “Sophie’s Choice,” a mother at a Nazi concentration camp is forced to choose which of her two children should live and which should die.