WASHINGTON – On Wednesday, U.S. Senator Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, addressed the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) and discussed his work to improve education for Native students. Udall outlined his education-related priorities on the Senate Indian Affairs and Appropriations committees – including expanding Native language opportunities, providing additional support for teachers in Indian Country and securing greater funding for school construction and maintenance.
The following are Udall’s remarks as prepared for delivery:
Thank you Kevin for that kind introduction. I applaud your years of dedicated service to the Pueblo of Jemez and to the Tribe’s education initiatives.
I’d like to also say hello to two other fellow New Mexicans: NIEA Treasurer Marita Hinds and Board Member Darrick Franklin. Thank you — and your fellow board members — for your work.
I’m honored to be with you today. Everyone here is devoted to the vital work of improving education for Native students.
Education is an absolute priority for me as Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. I want to say a few words on what the committee, and Congress, are doing.
And I then I can take some questions.
I’d like to begin by talking about the importance of Congress’s work to support Native language education. Everyone in this room knows that culturally-relevant education makes a tremendous difference for Native students. The kids are engaged. They stay in school. They graduate.
In Jemez Pueblo where Kevin is from, an estimated 80 percent of Tribal members still speak the Towa language. That number is truly remarkable, and the Pueblo is dedicated to maintaining fluency levels. They have pulled together resources and much-needed educational flexibility to create immersion pre-school programs and a K-12th grade Towa language curriculum. Now, the Pueblo’s Walatowa high school – regularly boasts graduation rates of 90 percent and above.
Research shows us that immersion is the best way to teach a language, and I firmly believe additional resources for immersion programs are critically needed.
That’s why one of my first acts as vice chair this Congress was to introduce and move through committee S. 254, the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act.
In my hometown, the Santa Fe Indian School sees graduation rates that rival Walatowa High School – reaching averages as high as 98 percent many years. SFIS – which is a BIE school operated by the 19 New Mexico Pueblo Governors – is one of many schools that rely on Esther Martinez funding to improve and expand Native language opportunities for its students.
My bill recognizes the important role Native languages play in Tribal schools and reauthorizes federal Native American language programs through 2023.
It has wide bipartisan support. And, last November, it passed the Senate unanimously. I am working with my House colleagues and encouraging them to take swift action, and I urge you to call your representatives, and ask them to do their part to reauthorize these important programs.
We also know that teachers can make all the difference in a child’s education. Without good teachers who reflect the communities they work in, schools can be an uninviting place for Native students. But attracting and retaining good teachers in Indian Country can be challenging.
I was proud to join Senator Tester to introduce S.458, the Native Educator Support and Training or “NEST” Act. The bill provides significant additional support to teachers in Indian County. This is an exciting bill with lots of potential. It’s been introduced on the House side as well – H.R. 2727. Please contact your members in Congress and encourage them to support it.
Finally — it’s a fact that kids learn better when they have safe, inviting buildings and up-to-date facilities. It should go without saying that it’s difficult to learn if you’re too hot or too cold or don’t have working restrooms. We have too much deferred maintenance in the schools serving Indian Country – whether they are funded by the BIE or local education agencies. Congress needs to do more. I was able to secure in the Senate bill – through my role on the Interior Appropriations Subcommittee – an additional $3 million dollars maintenance and construction dollars for deficiencies identified in BIE school inspections for fiscal year 2017.
And I will continue to fight for BIE and Impact Aid school construction funding as Congress begins to pull together legislation to invest in our country’s infrastructure needs.
I was disappointed that the president didn’t prioritize Indian Education construction and Indian Education in his budget this week. Instead, his proposal would cut over $80 million dollars from BIA construction and nearly $150 million dollars from tribal K-12 and higher education programs.
No student is at their best, ready to learn, when their stomach is empty or when they are worried about where they will sleep that night. That is why I was shocked to see that the president is proposing devastating cuts to food assistance and Native housing programs.
The Senate Indian Affairs Committee and the Appropriations Committee will give you – the members of the National Indian Education Association – and Tribal communities a say in evaluating the president’s proposal.
I encourage each of you to make your voice heard. Tell your lawmakers that Indian Country needs more funding for these vital programs.
And, when you get back home, ask your Tribal leaders to join you in submitting statements of support for Indian education funding at every opportunity. Your voices make all the difference!
Education is key to success, to reaching your potential and realizing your dreams. The hard work that you do every day – analyzing data, developing policy, and running classrooms – is helping make a difference for the next generation of Tribal leaders.
Thank you for all that you do.