The shy smile from K. C. Warledo didn't match the gravity of her response when asked where she'd be without Job Corps.
"Honestly, I think I'd be homeless," said Warledo, 19.
The self-described 10th-grade dropout of Cheyenne heritage is among the nearly 250 youth who live and learn at the Talking Leaves Job Corps Center, a residential training program in Tahlequah.
Operated by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, the center's population isn't limited to Native Americans, though it is one of only a few centers nationally run by Native American tribal groups.
But the center and several other workforce training programs operated by Oklahoma tribal groups may be swept up in political activity aimed squarely at streamlining federal workforce development programs. Not including the costly Job Corps program, Native American groups in northeast Oklahoma last year directly received more than $3 million in federal funds for workforce development programs for both youth and adults.
Proposed legislation would streamline an area of government that has overlap between programs, according to reform backers, who note that a reform bill has already been revised to give more money to American Indian programs.
Opposed to the legislation is The National Indian and Native American Employment and Training Conference, which describes itself as "the largest and most representative national Indian and Native American employment and training association." The group has declared a "call to action" against legislation introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The measure, known as the Workforce Investment Improvement Act of 2012, would strengthen the state's role in allocating workforce development funds to the detriment of Native Americans, according to the group.
The bill was introduced by U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC), U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) and U.S. Rep. Joe Heck (R-NV).
Foxx's press secretary, Ericka Perryman, said that concerns of American Indian groups don't properly take into account changes in the legislation made during committee sessions.
"In fact, the legislation increases workforce development funding dedicated solely to Native Americans by more than 150 percent," Perryman wrote in a statement.
Regardless of any tweaks to the bill, local tribal leaders also expressed worry about any changes to the current system.
"We've been monitoring it real close. We are concerned," said Principal Chief George Tiger of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
According to government documents, his group received just about $1 million in funding last year as a grantee under the Workforce Investment Act.
Tiger said the money goes to training programs. "It is important for us that we continue these types of programs without anything that would hamper what we're doing now. We feel like this would," Tiger said.
Helen Christie, executive director for the Inter-Tribal Council of Northeast Oklahoma, said relying on the state would be bad for her group.
"It's an issue that's a threat to our tribal sovereignty and our ability to serve the needs of our people, because we already deal with limited funding the way it is," said Christie.
Giving funds to the state for distribution would also be a practical disadvantage, according to Christie.
"They say that it would streamline the workforce development programs. In actuality, the belief among grantees in the Native American program is that they're not set up to handle the influx of workers or participants that would be coming in," Christie said.
"There's a concern that the state taking control of that, that they wouldn't be able to adequately serve the Native American population."
Chris White, executive director of governmental affairs for the Osage Nation, called the legislation "a GOP-driven bill," referring to the Republican Party. The Osage Nation received almost $140,000 in WIA funding 2011, according to government records.
"We don't think it has too much of a chance to get through the Senate," White said.
However, the criticism is also coming closer to home. Sen. Tom Coburn released a scathing report July 24 critiquing job training programs in Oklahoma, echoing some of the criticisms put forth by fellow Republican lawmakers.
Kim Carroll, director of grants and compliance for the career services division of the Cherokee Nation, said criticism in the report was off-base when describing bi-weekly payments at the Talking Leaves Job Corps Center.
Students receive up to $50, with the amount increasing the longer a student is in program, which Coburn characterized as an incentive to stay rent-free in the program.
Carroll, however, said the payments encourage the youth -- participants range in age from 16 to 24 -- to complete their high-school diploma in addition to finishing vocational training in fields like health care or culinary arts.
The Cherokee Nation, which receives about $1.8 annually in WIA funds, opposes the House legislation, Carroll said. About 6,400 people yearly pass through the Cherokee Nation's career services division yearly, some to merely get an assessment done and others to take part in career training.
"We always have a waiting list for vocational training," said Carroll.
Tiger said that the recent economic recession has been difficult for would-be workers. A recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute described higher unemployment rates for American Indians than whites. In a three-state region including Oklahoma, American Indians had an unemployment rate of 12 percent in the first half of 2010, compared to a 7.1 percent unemployment rate for whites in the same region.
Christie said her group is receiving just over $90,000 this year, less than in the past.
"I'm receiving $6,000 less this year. We keep getting cut, and so our resources are dwindling," she said.
She said her group, based in Miami, works to develop training that's relevant to the local economy.
"Those services, they are defined by the needs of the area. ... We look at different businesses that the tribes are developing," Christie said.
She said opportunities for training are given out on a first-come, first-serve basis.
"Usually within the first month of the program, I've reached my quota for the whole year," Christie said.
She said she's been doing this type of work since 1988, and has seen a similar pattern with the state taking over programs once run by an American Indian group.
In the 1990s, her group ran adult-education classes.
"Ours was five days a week, four hours a day, but the one the state does is just two nights a week," Christie said, adding that enrollment is limited.
For those calling for reform, the issue is also about properly evaluating the effectiveness of programs, however.
"Under current law, the Secretary of Labor operates the Native American Employment and Training program, which is subject to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees," Perryman wrote, noting that a recent Government Accountability Office report "found the federal government hasn't studied the effectiveness of this program in almost nine years."
Perryman wrote that directing limited funds to programs that "don't necessarily work" is a "great disservice" to Indian tribes.
Christie had her own way of evaluating the last several years: "We've had to do more with less resources," she said.
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