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Is school choice coming to Native Americans?

032216 Native American Schools
McCain's solution: Let Native Americans use BIE funds on private school tuition or other educational needs. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)

Native Americans living on Indian reservations attend some of the worst schools in the country, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is working to change that. McCain introduced legislation last Thursday that would bring school choice to Native American students and help them escape failing schools.

Schools on Indian reservations are run by the Bureau of Indian Education. A November 2015 article by Politico's Maggie Severns shows how terrible those schools are: "Cracks running several feet down the walls, leaky pipes in the floors and asbestos in the basement… The 48,000 students unfortunate enough to attend BIE schools have some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country — even as the education they're getting is among the nation's most expensive: At $15,000 per pupil, the system costs 56 percent more than the national average."

Corruption appears rampant in the system. "The GAO found that 24 BIE schools inappropriately spent $13.8 million during the first half of 2014… In 2013, a BIE employee was convicted for embezzling more than $23,000 from a charity fund for school supplies, which she spent on clothing, salon visits and a trip to Las Vegas."

McCain's solution: Let Native Americans use their BIE funds on private school tuition, tutors, books or other educational needs. "It is unconscionable to leave Native American students stranded in failing schools when we can create the option of expanding educational opportunities on Indian reservations now," McCain said in a press release. "I believe that encouraging private schools to compete with BIE schools can improve K-12 education, even in the most remote parts of Indian Country."

Essentially, the bill would create an education savings account for students. The account would have 90 percent of their per-pupil BIE funding, with the BIE retaining the other 10 percent. The accounts would be administered by participating states. Currently, only four states have education savings account programs: Arizona, Mississippi, Florida and Nevada.

McCain's bill has the support of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, Goldwater Institute, Institute for Better Education, Institute for Justice and the American Federation for Children, among other groups. "Students enrolled at BIE schools are trapped in some of the worst performing schools in America, and this program will provide parents with real hope and the opportunity to provide their children with a quality education," said Betsy DeVos, chairman of the American Federation for Children.

If the bill advances, it would go through the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

Jason Russell is a commentary writer for the Washington Examiner.