Reforming Johnson-O’Malley Can Change Lives

A student at Tahlequah High School, located in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. Photo: Anadisgoi

Guest Commentary

Published January 21, 2019

The Johnson-O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act, recently signed into law, requires the U.S. Department of the Interior to update the count of Native American students eligible for the JOM program annually. The bill will establish a new baseline count of JOM-eligible students, which includes thousands of Cherokee youth. The new modern, accurate allocation funding formula will better meet the needs of Native students across the country.

This issue is one Cherokee Nation has been advocating to change for years, since I was a member of the Tribal Council. When federal funding was frozen at the 1995 level and capped at 278,000 students nationally, it negatively impacted our families, schools and communities. By law, the U.S. has a trust responsibility to tribal nations. But the population and funding formulas to fund that trust never grew, even though Indian Country has grown rapidly since 1995.

Chief Bill John Baker

The U.S. Census confirms American Indians are among the fastest-growing populations in America. According to the National Indian Education Association, the FY18 federal budget allocated only $15 million of the estimated $42 million required for fully funding JOM in the United States. That’s why we have spent more than two decades advocating for JOM reform. It is an incredibly important program for regional students. In northeast Oklahoma, JOM’s mission is to ensure every Indian child in the Cherokee Nation’s service area receives educational opportunities – books, fees, equipment – that their schools would not otherwise provide. Additionally, successful JOM programs incorporate tribal culture and heritage as part of a base curriculum.

There are more than 130,000 American Indian school-aged children in our state’s public schools – the highest number in the country. Oklahoma continues to be one of the worst states for K–12 school funding cuts. Since 2008, Oklahoma has slashed education funding by almost 25 percent. In the Cherokee Nation alone, we have more than 26,000 Native students. That’s why this new act is so very important.  The JOM program awards contracts based on the number of Native students served, making it imperative that updated, accurate numbers be reflected in those contracts.

The JOM Modernization Act is a major step in the right direction, and I look forward to seeing the positive ripple effect it will have throughout Indian Country. With the passage of this bill, I believe we are poised to build a stronger future for the Cherokee Nation, for Oklahoma and for all of Indian Country. It is our responsibility to keep pushing for greater successes and raising the bar for our JOM programs. Every child deserves an education that meets his or her needs, and we want our youth to become everything God intended them to be.

To learn more about Cherokee Nation JOM or other education services, visitwww.cherokee.org/services/education.

Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.

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