The bipartisan bill updates decades-old data the federal government uses to distribute funds to benefit Native American students.

WASHINGTON, DC – Senator James Lankford’s (R-OK) Indian education bill, the Johnson O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act, passed the Senate Friday. The bipartisan bill updates decades-old data the federal government uses to distribute funds to benefit Native American students.

"The Johnson O’Malley Act is an important program that provides cultural and academic assistance to American Indian students and opens the door to a number of valuable resources,” said Lankford. “I’m glad it has passed the Senate. We need this legislation to become law to update decades-old data which will allow American Indian students to have access to quality education.”

Lankford, along with Senators Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) and Steve Daines (R-MT) introduced the bipartisan bill last year, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) joined as a co-sponsor last month. The bill would call on the Department of the Interior to update its severely outdated count of Native students in a timely manner by using existing public information from the Census Bureau and the National Center for Education Statistics to identify underserved students who are potentially eligible for the program. This data is crucial to ensure Native students in public schools can access the cultural and educational investments critical to their success.

Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ (BIA) last official count of eligible Native students took place more than two decades ago, the federal government still relies on this severely outdated data to determine federal funding needs and distribution for the Johnson-O’Malley (JOM) program – a federal cultural educational support program that works to boost academic achievement among underserved students in Native populations. By requiring the federal government to accurately count all Native students who could be served under the program, the Johnson O’Malley Supplemental Indian Education Program Modernization Act would work to change that, helping close gaps in access to programs that can help Native students improve academically.

During a time when Native students graduate from high school at a rate that is lower than any other racial or ethnic demographic in the country, Lankford, Heitkamp, Daines, and Warren are working to make sure that the cultural programs in public schools that are linked to boosting Native students’ opportunities, 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 the BIA, identified 271,884 Native students eligible for such resources. Since that time, the BIA has attempted to officially verify Native students eligible for the program without success, while the National Congress of American Indians has recently indicated a large gap in access to these programs with a marked increase of more than 500,000 Native young people nationwide in 2010 that could be eligible for JOM cultural resources. The program’s last official count of Indian students identified around 11,000 Native American students attending public schools in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Department of Education estimates that there are actually over 130,000 Indian students attending school in the state. The discrepancy between those two numbers is more than the total public school enrollment of four states.

Lankford serves on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. This bill was introduced during last Congress but did not receive a vote in the Senate.