Documentary Showcases Decades of Failure in Bureau of Indian Education Schools – And Points to Education Savings Accounts as the Solution

On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs passed the Native American Education Opportunity Act (NAEO) out of committee. Senator John McCain of Arizona is hoping to expand educational choice for Native American families currently stuck in the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) system through NAEO. The bill would allow states to use the BIE funds assigned to reservation schools to give students the ability to assemble a customized education of their families’ choice through Education Savings Accounts. By using competition to incentivize growth, the host state’s ESA program would be reimbursed up to 90 percent of BIE funds per pupil to pay tuition and other educational costs for students. In Arizona, the state’s ESA law is already providing these opportunities to 20 percent of the student population, and ESA parents love the program.

Native Americans living on reservations in the United States face significant challenges. The Bureau of Indian Education, tasked with providing young students an educational lifeline, has instead produced a decades-long record of failure that should embarrass every American.

The Bureau of Indian Education is the obscure division within the Department of the Interior responsible for the school system on Indian Reservations – controlling 183 schools on 64 reservations across 23 states. Graduation rates for BIE schools hover around an abysmal 53 percent, significantly lower than the national graduation rate of 80 percent, and substantially lower than the 69 percent of Native American students who graduate from traditional public schools outside the BIE system. Shockingly, students in BIE schools are, on average, more than two whole grade levels behind their Native American peers in regular public schools, according to the NAEP fourth-grade reading exam.

The story doesn’t get any better as students get older. Fewer than 40 percent of students attending BIE schools scored high enough on the ACT in Language Arts to be considered college proficient, while in math the number is only one in five. Fewer than one in ten BIE students are competent in all core subjects. With results like these it is hardly surprising that only five percent of Native American students attend college immediately after their senior year, and of that five percent, only one in ten will go on to graduate in four years.

America’s Underdog: Students in Crisis, a short film recently released by the American Federation for Children and showcased during the ALEC Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, documents the lives of students and teachers within the BIE educational system. The ten-minute documentary brings the sad statistics of BIE schools to life, showing decrepit buildings with leaky ceilings housing students who may never graduate.

An expose published by Politico, How Washington created some of the worst schools in America, outlines past administrations’ unsuccessful attempts to increase student achievement in BIE schools. The Clinton Administration created a program to train more Native American teachers, while President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act sought to increase accountability in BIE schools. President Obama, inspired by a trip to the Standing Rock Indian reservation in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, made his own attempts at improvement, but none of these “reforms” did much to increase student wellbeing and achievement. With BIE schools’ record of poor academic performance (BIE is the second-worst performer in the country, behind Detroit), students on America’s reservations cannot wait for another futile Washington-led reform attempt.

As is so often the case with education in the United States, the BIE has produced a system that yields dreadful results despite ample funding from the American taxpayer. The BIE spends $15,000 per pupil, 56 percent more than the national average, in exchange for the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country. The only thing worse than a disastrous education system is an expensive disastrous system; the BIE currently spends $830 million on schools that continue to produce appalling results.

Among the few bright spots highlighted in America’s Underdog, the Star School, a charter school located on an Indian Reservation in Arizona, seeks to preserve Navajo culture while providing educational opportunity. With infrastructure – among the biggest challenges for schools on rural reservations – not provided by the BIE, the Star School operates on solar power, giving students the opportunity to learn about energy and photons. In an effort to help students learn about their heritage, agriculture is taught as a hands-on learning experience in traditional Navajo food. While the Star School is a great start, educational choice for Native American students is sadly close to non-existent.

BIE schools are failing Native American students, and with decades of poor performance stubbornly outlasting traditional solutions, it is long past time to try something more innovative with a record of success in the states. Instead of locking students into expensive BIE schools that do not help them succeed, education savings accounts will empower reservation families to craft educational experiences that unlock the American Dream for some of America’s most disadvantaged “underdogs.”