Native American Kids’ Schools Are Crumbling And Unsafe. Congress Won’t Fix Them.


Sometimes, in the middle of class, teachers at the To’Hajiilee Community School suddenly run out the door.

They run to their cars. This K-12 school in TóHajiilee, New Mexico, was built in a flood plain, and when the walls of water inevitably come rushing down from the nearby canyon, teachers’ cars can get washed away if they don’t move them to higher ground quickly enough. At least one teacher has already lost a car, and school officials are used to hurrying children onto a bus to shuttle them to safety.

The floods have been a problem for decades, well before the high school was abruptly vacated in March. Its foundation was crumbling apart as the building sank into mud. Walls had visible cracks. Water poured through the roof when it rained. The U.S. government deemed the building unsafe and shut it down for major repairs. The high school students are all remote now, with teachers, somehow, teaching classes virtually that previously involved hands-on work in chemistry labs, in culinary arts classes and in woodworking.

Virtual teaching only works if you can get online, though. Many of the kids in this community about 35 miles west of Albuquerque don’t have internet access. For that matter, they don’t have clean drinking water at home, either. To accommodate this, the school created a “learning hub” on site, which is just a room where students can come take virtual classes. A school counselor sits with them while they work on computers.

Kids can get bottles of clean water here, too.

“We’re trying to do the best we can here to provide services for students ― not just education but also make sure their health and safety needs are met,” said Willinda Castillo, the chief school administrator. “It’s been a challenge.”

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone, teachers or students, can focus on getting a good education when their school is literally falling apart all around them. Just last week, the To’Hajiilee school campus was badly flooded again. Summer school is canceled.

“The conditions are so abysmal,” said Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.), who represents the district where the To’Hajiilee Community School is based. “It’s not even possible to carry out normal educational curricula, never mind trying to provide opportunities for technical trades or advanced computing, or all the things that we know are important opportunities for kids as they’re getting ready to be a part of our economy.”

She added, “This is a basic human rights issue.”

If you’re wondering how there are public schools operating in these conditions in 2022 in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it’s because the U.S. government has a long history of underinvestment in schools like To’Hajiilee Community School.

The K-12 To’hajiilee Community School in To’hajiilee, New Mexico, was built in a flood zone. Its buildings are literally crumbling apart and sinking into the mud.

To’hajiilee Community School

To’Hajiilee is a tribal school. It is one of 183 K-12 schools operated or supported by the Bureau of Indian Education, which serves more than 48,000 children all over the country. Of these schools, 86 are in “poor condition” and 73 don’t have the money for needed repairs, according to BIE data from 2021. An additional 41 of these schools are in “fair condition.”

The appalling conditions faced by tribal schools and the children inside of them are a result of the U.S. government’s failure to uphold its treaty obligations to Native American tribes, who gave up large swaths of land in exchange for the federal government guaranteeing investments in tribal communities to provide for their education and well-being.

Congress has never provided sufficient funding for tribal schools, and their infrastructure shows it. Some schools, like To’Hajiilee, which is part of the Navajo Nation, are trying to create a solid learning environment in decaying old buildings that are barely habitable. Some have serious problems with mold. Some have asbestos, and, in at least one case, children had to contend with a rattlesnake infestation.

Adding insult to injury, many of today’s BIE school buildings are former Indian boarding schools, where, for about 150 years, tens of thousands of Native American children endured physical, psychological and sexual abuse as the U.S. government forced them to attend these schools in an effort to assimilate them into white culture. Some children died. Others simply disappeared. The To’Hajiilee Community School is one of these schools.

“So it’s not just that these schools are substandard,” Stansbury told HuffPost in a recent interview. “These are places that also carry historical trauma.”

The New Mexico Democrat could talk about this all day. If anyone can persuade Congress to finally do right by the schools serving Indigenous children around the country ― not just a handful of them, but all of them ― it might be her.

Stansbury is only in her first term, but she knows all about the congressional spending process and tribal issues. She worked on BIE’s budget at the Office of Management and Budget under President Barack Obama. She was a staffer on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, as an aide to Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.). She’s currently a member of the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States, where she’s found bipartisan support for her efforts to find the money to replace crumbling tribal schools.

She also represents the congressional district previously held by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who oversees BIE.

The road to the To’Hajiilee Community School is constantly battered by flash floods because the school was built in a flood plain.
The road to the To’Hajiilee Community School is constantly battered by flash floods because the school was built in a flood plain.

To’Hajiilee Community School

On Tuesday, Stansbury appealed directly to her House colleagues to fully fund the entire construction backlog of BIE schools during a joint hearing of the House Natural Resources and House Education and Labor committees.

“I have one message this morning, which is, ‘Please fund BIE schools,’” she said in the hearing, during which BIE Director Tony Dearborn testified. “The federal government has a treaty, trust and moral responsibility to fund these schools…. We made commitments over the last 150 years that we would ensure that our Native children had not only an adequate education but a brilliant education that would help to prepare them for their futures.”

“It is Congress’ responsibility, in partnership with the administration, to ensure that we are doing that,” she added.

The average cost of replacing a tribal school in “poor condition,” according to BIE, is $62 million. That means Stansbury is calling for a $4.5 billion investment in these schools.

“That’s a drop in the bucket,” she told HuffPost, compared to the massive amounts of money the government spends on all kinds of other priorities.

She’s not wrong. President Joe Biden’s budget request for the Defense Department for fiscal year 2023, for one, is $773 billion. That includes more than $40.8 billion to build nine new battle force ships and $12.6 billion “to modernize Army and Marine Corps fighting vehicles.” Earlier this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to throw in $45 billion more for the Pentagon, too.

And, of course, Biden signed a $1.2 trillion bill into law in December making huge investments in the nation’s infrastructure.

“If the country is going to make trillions of dollars of investment in basic infrastructure for our country, I would think that we would have the moral, ethical and policy commitment that a $4 billion investment in tribal schools should be elevated to the same level as investments in airports, in roads, in water infrastructure,” Stansbury said.

“This is a basic human rights issue," Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) says of the need to replace dozens of decaying schools serving Native American children.
“This is a basic human rights issue,” Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.) says of the need to replace dozens of decaying schools serving Native American children.

Biden did propose a sizable increase in funding for BIE school construction in his 2023 budget, to the tune of $156 million over what he requested last year, bringing his total request this time to $420 million. Broadly speaking, Biden’s budget calls for $4.5 billion for all of the Interior Department’s tribal programs, which is a $1.1 billion increase above 2021 spending levels.

The White House is very proud of this.

“The President’s fiscal year 2023 Budget proposed the single largest annual budget investment in Tribal Nations in history — including a $338 million increase for BIE schools and education,” said an administration official in a statement. “We are fully committed to working with Congress to ensure Tribal schools have the resources they need to provide a high-quality education to their students.”

But even Biden’s bump in funding for BIE school construction would only benefit seven schools. And last week the House Appropriations Committee advanced its own bill with the level of spending lawmakers prefer for BIE school construction in 2023: $375 million, or $45 million less than Biden’s request.

Stansbury said the incrementalist approach that Democrats are taking to replacing tribal schools isn’t going to work. BIE’s budget is constrained by being part of the overall budget for the Interior Department, she said, so she’s looking at every possible path for moving this $4.5 billion separately. That’s included talking directly with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House appropriators, the White House and the interior secretary’s office.

“One thing I know as a former administration staffer and as a former Hill staffer is that the stars have to all align to get a deal on something,” Stansbury said. “If you keep trying and you keep putting forward your best foot and you try every possible avenue, eventually something will happen.”

“We are trying to bring systematic change to the system that will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Native children.”

– Rep. Melanie Stansbury (D-N.M.)

For now, the congresswoman is going to have to get very creative, and be very persistent, to find this $4.5 billion. Biden is almost certainly going to stick with the spending numbers laid out in his budget request. House and Senate appropriators have their own ideas about the levels of spending they prefer.

A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on whether Biden could support funding the full $4.5 billion to replace all of the K-12 tribal school buildings in poor condition.

A Pelosi spokesperson referred HuffPost to the House Appropriations Committee for questions about funding for tribal schools. A committee spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment about Stansbury’s efforts.

A spokesperson for Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), chair of the Indian Affairs Committee, did not respond to a request for comment on whether he could get behind Stansbury’s push.

Stansbury said she knows she’s calling for a lot of money outside of the standard appropriations process. But the way she sees it, the only way the U.S. government can make up for 200 years of failing to uphold its treaty obligations to tribes, on issues related to education or otherwise, is by going big.

“We are trying to bring systematic change to the system that will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Native children,” she said. “We can push Congress and we can push the administration to make these investments because that’s how you move the system after hundreds of years of inaction.”

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