New educational opportunities for Native American students?

March 23, 2016 | By RAYMOND NHAN

School choice may be expanding to Native American reservations soon. Last week, Senator John McCain introduced the Native American Education Opportunity Act, federal legislation that would expand school choice to Native American K-12 students living on Indian reservations. If this legislation becomes law, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), a federal school system for Native American students, would compete with private schools for students. The Native American Education Opportunity Act, like other school choice programs, has the opportunity to positively transform students’ lives.

Despite being well funded—spending 56% more per pupil than the national average—BIE schools are some of the worst performing nationally. They are physically in disrepair, and money meant for the schools have been misappropriated. For instance, at Crystal Boarding, a BIE school on a Navajo reservation, in 2013 only 5% of students were considered grade level in math. Crystal Boarding also has cracks running down its walls, leaky pipes in its floors, and asbestos in its basement. Additionally, the Government Accountability Office found that BIE schools misappropriated $13.8 million during the first half of 2014. And in 2011, a group of tribal members had to repay $625,000 they embezzled from BIE funds.

Senator McCain’s legislation presents a simple solution: let Native American families control their education. The Act would offer customized options for Native American students. And the school choice program would be funded by using 90% of the funds that BIE would have spent on students; the remaining 10% would stay in BIE’s budget.

This legislation may improve educational outcomes, as did the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP), another congressionally approved school choice program. OSP, which was initially approved in 2003, provides federally funded school vouchers to low-income children living in the Washington D.C. area. And OSP has been successful. In a 2010 study by the Department of Education, researchers found that 91% of students who used an OSP voucher graduated from high school. In comparison, only 70% of students who did not use a voucher graduated. Moreover, OSP voucher students were 25% more likely to enroll in college than peers of the same demographic makeup.

Federally sponsored school choice programs have improved educational outcomes before. If the Native American Education Opportunity Act becomes law, children living on Native American reservations will have an opportunity to realize outcomes similar to those of students receiving scholarships to attend private schools in Washington D.C..