No heat, carbon monoxide leaks and persistently dripping ceilings are some of the appalling conditions federal reports have detailed at Bureau of Indian Education schools. But these documents tell only part of the story, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The latest report from the GAO found the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ inspection program for BIE’s 183 elementary and secondary schools is grossly inadequate. The law requires that BIE schools and dorms be inspected annually, but in 2015, 69 schools were not inspected; 16 of those schools had dormitories, meaning students lived in the buildings 24/7 for weeks on end. Since 2012, the number of uninspected BIE schools has been increasing; some schools have not been inspected at all in nearly a decade.
The report is based on visits to 16 BIE-operated and tribally-operated schools in five states: Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Utah, and an analysis of agency data from fiscal years 2012 through 2015. The on-site visits were conducted from June 2014 through March 2016.
Information is lacking even for the schools that were inspected, according to GAO. BIA does not have “complete and accurate information for the two-thirds of BIE schools it inspected in fiscal year 2015 because it does not have updated and comprehensive guidance” for inspectors, who are not provided with up-to-date checklists for inspecting the schools properly.
At one school, “officials told us that the regional safety inspector conducted an inspection of the school in 2011—the schools’ most recent Indian Affairs inspection—from his car and did not inspect the interior of the school’s facilities, which include 34 buildings. The inspector’s report comprised a single page and identified no deficiencies inside buildings.” A subsequent inspection by the Indian Health Service found multiple, serious safety and health problems, said the report.
Even when deficiencies are found, repairs can take an unconscionably long time. Missing fire extinguishers, a dormitory with old boilers that are releasing elevated levels of carbon monoxide and a natural gas leak were not fixed for 8 months at one school even though students were still being housed in the dormitory. “School officials told us they continued to operate the boilers and use the dormitory after the inspection because there was no backup system to substitute for the boilers or other building available to house the students,” said GAO. As of December 2015, “none of the repaired boilers had been inspected by a certified boiler inspector, as required by Indian Affairs.”
GAO recommended, as it always does, that BIA correct the problems and the Interior Department says it’s working to do that. But conditions cannot improve significantly until Congress provides money for more inspectors, better training, travel and, most importantly, actual repairs to the schools and dormitories. Even in the best of all possible worlds, President Barack Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2017 budget includes only $138.3 million for school repair and construction and BIE anticipates that only four schools will be included on its next repair and replacement list.
Arizona is home to 54—nearly a third—of BIE’s schools, the majority on the Navajo Nation in the northern part of the state.
One Arizona state lawmaker, Sen. Carlyle Begay, Navajo, introduced legislation that expanded the state’s private school voucher program to tribal communities. The bill providing Empowerment Scholarships to American Indian students passed last year and allows parents of children living on a reservation and attending a BIE school to apply for scholarships that would pay for education at other schools.
Now U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, has taken this approach to Washington with legislation that would let American Indian parents use BIE funds to pay for other educational options for their K-12 students.
Introduced March 17, the Native American Education Opportunity Act would offer education options, including private tuition scholarships, to Native American students living on Indian reservations as an alternative to attending BIE schools. “This bill 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,” said McCain in a news release.
The amount would be 90 percent of the dollars that Interior would provide to a BIE-funded school on behalf of an AI/AN student. The funding would go to the state, not the tribe, and the state would disburse the education grants to parents. In keeping with the overriding principles memorialized in the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, states would assume responsibility formerly delegated to the federal government. The funding would follow the student, unless the student goes to a public school, in which case the funding would not available.
Since BIE’s cost-per-pupil is relatively high, and since the funding cannot be used to send a child to public school, this law could be a boon to individuals or organizations interested in starting private schools on or near reservations, but the question of oversight—would it be federal, state or tribal or all three—is not addressed in the legislation.
“Native American parents have always had few options for educational excellence and have very specific needs,” said the Honorable Navajo Nation Council Delegate Jonathan Hale, Chairman of Health, Education and Human Services Committee in a news release. “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.”
McCain’s bill has been referred to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is scheduled to hear testimony on this and other Native American education bills on April 6. The hearing will be webcast.