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If you want an example of the federal government’s myriad failures, the Navajo Nation is a good place to start. Despite billions of dollars of Washington spending, and clumsy micromanagement by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, and the HHS, more than 40 percent of the region’s residents live below the poverty line and the median household income is just $20,005.
The sprawling, semi-autonomous community covers 27,000 square miles of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, but is shared by only 170,000 people. Not only are the residents spread out over a vast distance, a large percentage live in remote locations making it difficult to establish quality local schools. As a result, the average high school graduation rate is a mere 32 percent, with only 5 percent of Navajos holding a bachelor’s degree.
So earlier this year, Sen. John McCain introduced the Native American Education Opportunity Act, which would enable residents of the Navajo Nation and other Native American communities to use an innovative school choice option called Education Savings Accounts. ESAs were first introduced in Arizona five years ago where they have met with great success. Over the past few years, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee replicated Arizona’s plan, making ESAs available only to children with special needs and kids below the poverty line. But last year Nevada took a big leap forward by opening the program to all public school students in the Silver State.
Here’s how ESAs work: The state places a portion of existing education dollars into a personal account. But instead of the government managing those funds, parents can use them to customize learning for their kids. So if a child with autism requires intensive speech therapy, for instance, the parent can offset that cost with their ESA debit card. State auditors need to approve the purchases, much like a health administrator double-checks a drugstore receipt when you use your HSA or Flex spending card. Since the funds are limited, parents are encouraged to spend carefully, especially since any funds leftover can be directed to future grades or their child’s higher education.
The Native American Education Opportunity Act would allow eligible students attending the high-cost, underperforming Bureau of Indian Education schools to improve their educational options. Ninety percent of a child’s share of federal funding would be placed into a dedicated ESA account. Parents could then direct these funds to better-performing private schools, charter schools, or distance learning programs.
“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. “I am proud to introduce this bill that would give Native American parents the option of using BIE funds to pay for private school tuition, tutors, books, and other educational needs through a state-administered education savings account. 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.”
Tribal representatives are very supportive of the bill, which has passed the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Native American parents have always had few options for educational excellence and have very specific needs,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Hale said. “The Native American Education Opportunity Act brings the power into the hands of Native American parents who know better than anyone else what their children need in order to be challenged.”
Arizona State Senator Carlyle Begay, who grew up in the Navajo Nation, agrees. “I’ve always believed education is the key to lifting up tribal communities yet our Native children are dead last in all important education matrices including having the highest dropout rate. This begs the question, ‘Are American Indian children failing the education system or is the education system failing American Indian children?’ This bill is a step toward rebuilding our communities through education by giving all tribal parents the options and resources they are requesting.”
A positive side effect of the legislation will be to help reorient our educational funding, by allowing dollars to follow the students, rather than having billions given to school districts and local politicians to parcel out as they see fit.Published in