A pair of Republican senators introduced legislation that would expand school choice for Native American students to allow them to attend non-Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools and open opportunities outside of the system.
A bill recently introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and James Lankford, R-Okla., would allow Indian tribes to create and administer an Education Savings Account program, in which students who apply for accounts could receive BIE funding from the Department of Interior to use for various educational purposes. This would include tuition for private school, tutoring and special needs services, among other items, with about half of funding in one's account eligable to roll over to the following year.
As McCain has pointed out for years, BIE schools have become increasingly problematic and are plagued by poor test scores and graduation rates. For example, the graduation rate for Arizona's Native American or Alaska Native students in 2015 stood at 66 percent, which was equaled by students with disabilities. Additionally, the graduation rate stood at 67 percent of Native American students in 2014, compared to the national average of 80 percent.
"It's an acknowledgement that the education in Indian country has been a failure for most of Indian country," Lankford told the Washington Examiner in an interview. "You've got kids that are trapped in BIE schools with some very dedicated staff and some people that are trying to help them and work on it, but it's not been successful."
The bill itself would fund education services using up to 90 percent of funds that BIE would spend on each student, amounting to about $15,000 apiece. By contrast, just under $10,000 is spent per student in public schools. Despite the higher amount of money spent at BIE schools, Government Accoutability Office reports show that those schools produce higher student dropout rates, lower scores on college admission tests and lower college entrance rates than public school students.
Many of these problems stem from decades of neglect despite attempts by the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to offer fixes, none of which has offered real change. Among the issues plaguing BIE schools are staffing and the poor facilities for students.
The issue came up this year when McCain, who introduced similar legislation in previous years, pressed then-Rep. Ryan Zinke during his confirmation hearings to become interior secretary. Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, intimated that McCain and Lankford's proposal is a good first step to solving the issue with BIE schools and students.
"We're going to work with him on it. He wants to do more for Native American education, and we need to," Hoeven told the Washington Examiner. "We're certainly open to working with him and figuring out how we can do more with BIE schools and creative options ... The first step first is to get a product and go from there."
While conservatives worry about the possible expansion of a government program, most see the legislation as a positive development for Native American communities.
"You're always taking the risk in creating a new federal program and additional regulations or adding to an already quite sizable federal bureacracy," said Jonathan Butcher, the education director at the conservative Goldwater Institute. "But my answer to that is that these students have been sadly underserved for many, many years."
Neither McCain nor Lankford has discussed the legislation with the White House. In the meantime, uncertainty surrounds whether Congress can get a bill to President Trump's desk to reform education for Native American students despite the pressing issues.
"That's the great unknown on it, honestly," Lankford said. "Our frustration is it's hard to move things that deal with education choice because all the emotion gets tied up in it ... thinking you're trying to condemn public schools, and that's not what this is."