Senators Lankford, Heitkamp Introduce Bill to Update Cultural Educational Program for Native Students

WASHINGTON, DC – Senators James Lankford (R-OK) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) today introduced bipartisan legislation to update decades-old data the federal government uses to distribute funds to benefit Native American students. The data currently excludes about 500,000 Native students from accessing federal resources they could be eligible for that would help address many of the students’ unique academic and cultural needs. The bill is called the Johnson-O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act.

Because of the lack of accurate data in how Native students are counted by the federal government, many Native students in public schools across the country eligible for federal cultural educational support through the Johnson O’Malley (JOM) program have lacked access to such resources. The Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) last official count of Native students took place more than two decades ago, yet it still uses these numbers to determine which students get federal resources. Heitkamp and Lankford introduced bipartisan legislation to require the federal government to quickly and accurately count all eligible Native students for the program, which would allow these students who currently aren’t being counted access to federal resources that will help them improve academically.

“The Johnson-O’Malley program addresses some of the unique cultural and academic needs of Native American students, but the efficiency of its management is questionable,” said Lankford. “Congress has raised concerns about JOM’s inaccurate count of Indian students attending public schools before. It’s now time for statutorily-enforced updates to this program so that it truly helps the students it was intended to help. The JOM Modernization Act will provide a needed reformation to ensure the program effectively reaches Indian students in public schools throughout the United States.”

“In too many forgotten corners of our country, Native young people – often neglected and underserved – are falling behind,” said Heitkamp. “We already know that culturally specific programs in schools, like Native language preservation courses, help put Native students on brighter paths personally and academically. But for the past two decades, federal agencies have failed to provide an accurate count of the Native students most in need – and potentially eligible for – these resources. As one of the fastest growing populations in the country, U.S. Census data suggests that Native students eligible for such resources have dramatically increased. No child in America deserves to be forgotten – and every child deserves the chance to succeed. That’s why our bipartisan bill would work to get accurate numbers and increase access to the cultural programs that help Native children thrive.”

During a time when Native students graduate from high school at a rate far lower than any other racial or ethnic demographic in the country, Lankford and Heitkamp are working to make sure that the cultural programs in public schools that have linked to boosting Native students’ morale, as well as academic performance and attendance, are readily available in classrooms. Despite the stark need for such programs, the last official count in 1995 by BIA, identified 271,884 Native students eligible for such resources. Since that time, the BIA has attempted to officially verify Native students eligible to the program without success, while the National Congress of American Indians recently indicated a large gap in access to these programs – with a marked increase of more than 500,000 Native young people nationwide that could be eligible for JOM cultural resources.

Lankford and Heitkamp’s bipartisan bill would call on the U.S. Department of the Interior to update its severely outdated count of Native students in a timely manner by using existing public information from the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) to show underserved students who are potentially eligible under the program. This data is crucial for making sure Native students in public schools can access the cultural and educational investments critical to their success.