Why are Democrats keeping Native American students trapped in a failing system?

Published October 7, 2016

The Native American Education Opportunity Act (NAEOA), introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), has recently passed out of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and will now be considered by the entire Senate. The bill would establish ESAs for eligible Native American students currently attending Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools, allowing them to use 90 percent of the federal funding allocated for their public school education on learning alternatives, such as private school tuition or home-schooling textbooks.

NAEOA highlights at the national level what a growing number of states have already come to realize: Education savings accounts (ESAs) make sense and are good for students.


Three states — Arizona, Florida and Mississippi — offer ESA programs, each of which has varying restrictions. In 2015, Nevada passed a universal ESA program that would have made 96 percent of students in the state eligible for an ESA, but the Nevada Supreme Court has put the program on hold while it decides how to rule in two separate challenges to the program’s constitutionality. Tennessee also passed legislation that creates an ESA program, whichEdChoice, formerly the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, reports will launch in January 2017.

The narrow passage of NAEOA (it passed by a 7–6 vote) highlights the contentious nature of ESAs. Opponents claim ESA programs unfairly — and in some cases, as in the Nevada lawsuit, unconstitutionally — divert money intended to fund public schools.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) said of NAEOA, “I do not believe in any program that would divert public education funds to private entities with limited accountability.”

Tester is either ignorant that ESAs have been proven to increase per-pupil funding in public schools or doesn’t care. But even if it could be proven ESAs do not benefit students who choose to stay in public schools, why do BIE schools deserve to be funded if they’re failing students?

The National Congress of American Indians reports, “Native students’ academic achievement and educational attainment lags far behind that of their white peers. Over the past 10 years, Native students have been the only population to have not improved in reading or math (grades four and eight). Nationwide, Native youth face some of the lowest high school graduation rates, and even fewer enroll in and graduate from college. On average, less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school each year in the seven states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students.”

McCain reports a similar dire situation for Native American students.

“A new school year has begun for about 41,000 Native American students in 185 BIE schools around the nation,” McCain said. “Statistically, half of them will not graduate high school. Their test scores will trail by double digits compared to their peers attending public schools in urban areas. While some BIE schools have not been inspected for safety in 10 years, BIE spends more money on Native students than most other school systems in the nation — an estimated $15,000 per student per year. This is unacceptable.”

With all this information available to Tester and other like-minded opponents of school choice, why would they ever want to limit the options of students who need the most help and trap them in a failing system that has ruined educational opportunities for countless Native Americans? The answer is powerful, well-funded teachers unions make it extremely difficult for many Democrats and some Republicans to favor school choice without facing a significant backlash.

The National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers union, is concerned primarily (and not surprisingly) about sustaining public schools. NEA accuses ESAs of representing “potentially devastating funding losses” to public schools. The thought of public schools losing funding and being closed is probably welcome to parents of Native American students who are heartsick over seeing their children consistently let down by BIE schools.

Another gripe NEA has with ESAs is NEA says they’re “virtually free of oversight.” But what about the oversight of parents, whose right it is to decide the best learning environment for their children? And what good has “oversight” done for BIE schools, where Native American students perform much worse than their peers?

Native American students and their parents deserve to have education freedom, as do all families. ESAs level the playing field, and parents that use them are satisfied. According to a 2013 study published by EdChoice, “Parents using ESAs for their children are more satisfied with the accounts than with the public school their children previously attended. In addition, survey respondents report using account funds for more than private school tuition, taking advantage of the accounts’ flexibility.”

McCain is right to propose increased choice as a solution to the failing public education system. NAEOA is a step in the right direction. All parents should be able to customize how their children learn, and their children shouldn’t have to be in failing environments to be offered a better opportunity.

[Originally Published at Deseret News]