WASHINGTON, D.C. ― U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, joined Committee Chairman John Hoeven (R-N.D.) to convene the committee’s first legislative hearing of the 116th Congress to receive testimony on three bills, including S.279, the Tribal School Federal Insurance Parity Act, which Udall co-sponsored.
The Tribal School Federal Insurance Parity Act would create equitable access to the Federal Employee Health Benefits (FEHB) and Federal Employees Group Life Insurance (FEGLI) for all Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools by correcting a technical oversight in the Indian Health Care Improvement Act that only made some BIE Tribal schools eligible for the benefits programs.
Access to the FEHB and FEGLI programs allows the currently eligible BIE schools to offer better recruitment and retention incentive packages to address teacher shortages in Indian Country.
“Access to these federal programs allows [currently eligible] BIE schools to offer teachers low-cost, high-value benefit packages – a hiring incentive that can be a major factor in convincing educators to choose BIE over other school systems,” Udall said.“Recruitment and retention of qualified teachers in schools serving Native communities is one of my top priorities.”
Cecilia Firethunder, president of the Oglala Lakota Nation Education Coalition, which represents six BIE Tribally-controlled grant schools on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, testified at the hearing and backed up Udall’s assertion.
“We have trouble recruiting staff due to the cost of their benefits, which is a really important component of a school’s ability to bring in highly-qualified teachers,” Firethunder said.
Udall also is an original co-sponsor of S.1161, the Native Educator Support and Training (NEST) Act, which would establish scholarships, loan forgiveness plans, and professional development programs for Native youth interested in becoming teachers and for educators who commit to teaching in Native communities.