Bill to Create ESAs for Native American Students Passes Senate Committee

Published October 13, 2016

A U.S. Senate Committee has approved legislation that would give more Native American students access to education savings accounts (ESAs).

In 2011, Arizona became the first state to adopt an ESA program that enables some families to redirect 90 percent of their child’s state education funds toward educational alternatives, such as homeschool textbooks, private school tuition, and tutoring. But because Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools are federally funded, students attending BIE schools have been unable to apply for the ESA program.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) introduced Senate Bill 2711, titled the Native American Education Opportunity Act, in March 2016. The bill would give eligible BIE students in states with ESA programs—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, and Nevada—access to 90 percent of what the federal government spends per Native American pupil on education.

“In order for a student to use federal funding in a state education savings account program, the student must be eligible for an account under state program rules,” the Washington Free Beacon reports.

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs passed SB 2711 in a 7–6 vote in September. At press time, the bill had not been voted on by the full U.S. Senate.

BIE Students ‘Struggling’

During the committee hearing on his bill, McCain said about half of Native American students do not graduate high school. McCain also said, “Their test scores will trail by double-digits compared to their peers attending public schools in urban areas.”

Jonathan Butcher, education director for the Goldwater Institute, says BIE students are being left behind.

“Native American students, on average, are struggling around the country, based on what we see from national test comparisons and graduation rates,” Butcher said. “But Native American students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools are struggling even more than their peers—Native American or not—at traditional schools.”

Matt Frendewey, national communications director for the American Federation for Children, says ESAs will provide numerous options for Native American students.

“[Native American students’] test scores are significantly lower than [those of] their peers attending public schools in urban areas,” Frendewey said. “Under this bill, BIE parents can choose to use their child’s ESA to pay for private school, online school, homeschool, books, tutors, and education therapies.

“When we passed the original tribal expansion in Arizona, hundreds of Native American families applied in the first three weeks,” Frendewey said. “Nearly half of those were left out because they were attending BIE schools.” 

‘Quality’ Options

Butcher says schools are ready to meet the needs of Native American students.

“In Arizona, for example, there are private schools prepared to meet the needs of Native American students, but often such schools are out of reach for these families,” said Butcher. “Education savings accounts can help make quality educational options available to struggling students.”

Jenni White ([email protected]) writes from Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.