Education for American Indians

Among the many failures of federal policies over the decades, the failures of Indian policies stand out. The government has deprived American Indians of their lands, resources, and freedom in many ways. It has failed to create an institutional structure supportive of prosperity on reservations. And the Bureau of Indian Affairs has been mismanaged for two centuries, as I discuss here.

Naomi Schaefer Riley addresses the failures of Indian policies in The New Trail of Tears, which she will discuss at an upcoming AEI forum. I will be commenting on Riley’s book at the forum.

One of Riley’s themes is the failure of federal and tribal efforts to provide a decent education for children on reservations. Riley visited numerous schools, and she reports on the disheartening conditions that she saw.  

Last week the Washington Post reported:

The federal government has repeatedly acknowledged and even lamented its failure to provide adequate education for Native American children. Now, nine Native children are taking to the courts to force Washington to take action.

The children are all members of the Havasupai Nation, whose ancestral homelands are in and around the Grand Canyon. They attend an elementary school that is run by the federal Bureau of Indian Education and is, according to a lawsuit filed Thursday, hardly recognizable as a school at all.

Havasupai Elementary School does not teach any subjects other than English and math, according to the complaint; there is no instruction in science, history, social studies, foreign language, or the arts. There aren’t enough textbooks or a functioning library or any after-school sports teams or clubs, according to the complaint. There are so many and such frequent teacher vacancies that students are allegedly taught often by non-certified staff, including the janitor, or they are taught by a series of substitutes who rotate in for two-week stints. The school shuts down altogether for weeks at a time.

The Obama administration has been candid about the federal government’s failure to meet the needs of nearly 50,000 Native young people in nearly 200 schools the Bureau of Indian Education oversees.

“Indian education is an embarrassment to you and to us,” [Interior Secretary Sally] Jewell told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in 2013.

The Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) oversees 183 Indian schools with 41,000 students, as I discuss in this study. The BIE operates about one-third of the schools, and tribal governments operate the other two-thirds.

The poor performance of the schools does not seem to be caused by a lack of funding. The schools received $830 million of federal aid in 2014, which is $20,000 per pupil. The GAO reports that “the average per pupil expenditures for BIE-operated schools—the only BIE schools for which detailed expenditure data are available—were about 56 percent higher than for public schools nationally.”

If more money is not the answer, what is? How about private management and school choice? Rather than running schools, the federal government could provide education block grants to the tribes, who would then outsource school management to expert education firms. Even better, federal funding could flow directly to Indian parents in the form of vouchers to be used at schools of their choice. I’ll be interested to see what former BIE head Keith Moore says about those options at the AEI forum.

More on school choice here.