Published March 20, 2013
The Department of Education’s sequester cuts are taking a brutal toll on federally-funded schools on Native American reservations, but the federal agency still found money to create a new six-figure job promoting “Educational Excellence for African-Americans.”
School officials on reservations across Minnesota have begun making painful cuts to the current budget in anticipation of sequester cuts, adding students to classrooms, slashing course offerings and leaving vacant jobs unfilled, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. At least one reservation is considering shortening the school year to save money.
“There’s a real sense of frustration for everybody,” Red Lake Superintendent Steve Wymore told the newspaper.
State education advocates say the cuts could threaten hard-won progress made by Native Americans. Last year saw graduation rates at 22 Native American school districts rise 3 percentage points, up to about 45 percent.
“It is indefensible that the first wave of reckless sequestration cuts to education will hit our most vulnerable students,” U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., who co-chairs the Congressional Native American Caucus, told the newspaper.
But in Washington, education funding cuts did not stop the appointment this month of a former elementary school teacher and aide to Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y. to the job of executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African-Americans. David Johns was given the newly created job, where he will be “asked to identify evidence-based best practices to improve African-American student achievement from cradle to career,” according to the Department of Education.
The goal of the initiative is to work with federal, state and local agencies, as well as community groups, to "produce a more effective continuum of education programs for African-American students."
Previously, the White House has created similar initiatives to serve Hispanics, Asian-American and Pacific Islanders and American Indian and Native Americans and Historically Black Colleges and Universities. While all of these may be well-intended, the latest job was announced on March 7, barely a week after the sequester cuts were locked into place.
Johns had been serving as a senior education policy adviser to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. Before that, he was a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Fellow in Rangel’s office. Johns’ salary in the new job is $123,758, according to a department official.
Outside the beltway, budget cuts are taking a visible toll. The department must cut 5 percent from all education programs to comply with the Budget Control Act, commonly known as sequestration. While most school districts are funded with local taxes, those on tax-exempt Native American lands depend on federal funding.
The selective austerity shown by the Department of Education and other federal agencies shows the Obama administration is trying to emphasize the budget cuts' effect on the public, said Kyle Olson, founder of the Michigan-based education watchdog Education Action Group.
"It seems like there's no rhyme or reason for the cuts that they're making," Olson said. "They are trying to maximize the public effect -- the pain -- in order to make their point. But the fact of the matter is, the sequester is not a cut, it is a reduction in the rate of growth. The choices they're making are absurd."