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Indian education fund mired in red tape

The National Fund for Excellence in American Indian Education was supposed to help raise funds for children in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. But seven years later, the foundation has yet to help a single Indian child.  NBC's Christiana Arvetis reports.
/ Source: NBC News

It began with a noble — and supposedly modest — mission. The National Fund for Excellence in American Indian Education was supposed to help raise funds for children in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. In 2000, President Clinton promised the fund would “encourage and accept private gifts to help further the education of Indian children."

But seven years later, those funds haven’t materialized. The foundation has yet to help a single Indian child. The seven-member board is mired in Washington red tape, hasn't raised any money and hasn't even identified any schools it one day hopes to help.

"We've accomplished a great deal of nothing," says Nick Lowery, who heads the foundation. Lowery, a former NFL kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs, blames a "lack of leadership" in Washington. "The hold-up is lack of legislative oversight," he says.

The foundation's board says it has done everything possible to gain access to the funds promised them. Highly accomplished professionals sit on the nonprofit fund-raising board with Lowery and share his frustration. They say they continue to meet in Washington, knocking on the doors of Congress, trying to convince the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to allow them access to the $1.6 million in donated funds. Without access to money, Lowery says they cannot be the effective and meaningful foundation they strive to be.

"All we need is for this Congress to provide minimal funding to allow this foundation to be independent," he says.

Jo-Anne Stately, another disheartened board member, remains on the foundation for one reason: She says Native-American children need help.

"There's a continuing transfer of leadership at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and people continue to ignore and push us off," she says. "But I grew up on a reservation. I know my schools were under-served in the resources and in the caliber of teaching we received, so I want to do whatever I can to help kids on reservations today."  

Schools in desperate straits
The National Indian Education Association says nearly 50,000 children are educated at Bureau of Indian Affairs schools. These schools rely on the federal government to ensure their academic and construction needs are met. The association reports 60 percent of BIA students drop out of school each year and nearly three-fourths of BIA schools are failing the No Child Left Behind standards. The foundation insists these schools, located in many of the poorest counties in the country, could benefit from their plans to raise funds. 

Board member Sharon Darling, director of the Center for Family Literacy, says she can't understand why the money set aside for the foundation has never been transferred from the Department of Interior's Office of the Special Trustee for their use. 

"Anytime we can get back to the reservations and help these families in any way, it's important. I've seen for myself how much progress is made when attention is paid to these children and their families," Darling says. 

‘Washington does not work’
BIA officials claim they are working on the matter, but that they are dealing with internal issues which make it difficult to concentrate on a non-profit foundation. Leadership changes have also hampered progress. Since the board's inception there have been three different officials elected to run the Bureau of Indian Education programs, and two secretaries of the Interior Department.

"This is a snapshot, a postcard and full-length movie of how Washington does not work," says Lowery. 

On April 12th, the newly-named Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Carl Artman, assured Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, he would re-evaluate the foundation's request and hopes to have a transfer of funds in place within a month.

"We understand the board's frustration, but we have to make sure all the correct steps are in place before we transfer funds bequeathed to us for safekeeping," says Artman. "We can't just take the money for the Department of the Interior and transfer it to an entity that doesn't have a business plan. We have to be sure the money is safe before transferring it somewhere that is not fully ready."

Lowery claims they've been ready for seven years, but he's encouraged by Artman's willingness to talk. 

"We're glad he seems committed to moving things forward, but we aren't holding our breath," says Lowery.

All Lowery wants is for Congress to move ahead with their initial mandate to provide the minimal funding he believes will propel this lonely board to move forward to help Native American children achieve the success they deserve.