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Senators push for Native American education rights

Getting access to full educational benefits can be difficult for students who belong to minority cultures. To help combat this, U.S. Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), James Lankford (R-OK) and Steve Daines (R-MT) are pushing legislation that ensures Native American students receive access to critical educational programs.

The legislation — called the Johnson O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act — focuses on helping students who are eligible for federal learning resources that address unique academic and cultural needs.

A core program of this legislation is the Johnson-O’Malley (JOM) program, a federal cultural educational support program that helps underserved Native American students succeed academically. Despite the program’s prominence in helping these students, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has not collected data on its success in more than 20 years. They still use this outdated data in determining federal funding for JOM.

Heitkamp said in a press release that updating the data prevents Native American children from falling through the cracks.
“Native students are among America’s most underserved youth,” she said. “For years, the federal government has been neglecting its duty to help them access learning opportunities that can help them thrive.”

If passed, the new legislation will: direct the Secretary of the Interior to work with the BIE Director in taking practical steps to ensure full participation of all qualified students in the JOM program; require that the Secretary provides a count of eligible Native American students based on available data; enable the Secretary to identify potential sources of JOM funding; ensure a proactive and coordinated effort to increase participation in the JOM program by identifying tribal organizations and school districts with unserved students; call for a negotiated rulemaking to determine if the funding formula and eligibility definitions should be updated; and require an annual program assessment report to Congress and call for a GAO report about the program.
“It is the tragic reality that American Indian students in some parts of the country most overcome many hardships as they seek a quality education,” Lankford said in the press release. “[The legislation] ensures a program operates with an accurate count of Indian students attending public schools.”

In 2016, new statistics showed that American Indian/Alaska Natives have the third lowest graduation rates in the country. This is the lowest rate of any racial or ethnic group in the U.S. Although the demographic has seen a 6.6 percent increase since 2010, only 71.6 percent of the population graduates high school.

More than 90 percent of Native American students attend public schools, and JOM aims to provide these students with supplemental assistance through tribal organizations, schools and other organizations. The last set of data, gathered in 1995, showed that 271,884 Native American students were eligible for the program; however, the 2010 census found that there are at least 798,486 students eligible for assistance.

James Whitman, a member of the Three Affiliate Tribes and former National Johnson O’Malley Association Board of Directors member representing the state of North Dakota, has expressed support of the bill.

“Obtaining this eligible student count will drive the policy, program and funding discussions needed to make JOM more effective, meaningful and beneficial for all eligible Indian children,” Whitman said.

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Li Cohen
Li is a reporter for The Seminole Tribune. When she isn't drinking a [probably excessive] cup of coffee, she is reading and writing about local, national, and international news. She can also be seen at Nova Southeastern University working on her masters degree, running around South Florida in preparation of marathon season, and travelling to new lands. Make sure to check out her work at liyakira.com, send her an email at licohen@semtribe.com and follow her journeys on Twitter (@WritingLiYakira) and Instagram (@LiYakira).
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