Thousands of children attend schools operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Education, and for years, no one has known for sure if the buildings where they learn, eat and sleep are safe.
That’s one finding from a recent report issued by the Government Accountability Office that has shaken the bureau, which oversees schools that serve about 7 percent of American Indian students — nearly 50,000 schoolchildren — scattered across 23 states mostly in the rural western and southwestern United States.
The report says more than one-third of all 180 school locations have gone longer than one year without health and safety inspections. Of those, 54 sites haven’t been inspected in at least four years. The Bureau of Indian Education mandates annual inspections for all schools.
And among inspected schools, it’s unclear how many of them received improper or incomplete review, said Melissa Emrey-Arras, who directs education, workforce and income security issues for GAO. She said that in one instance, a “drive-by inspection” was conducted for a school complex with 34 buildings.
“They’re at risk of endangering the children they’re charged with protecting,” Emrey-Arras said.
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Congress could soon find itself with a chance to radically improve the lives of thousands of children currently trapped in crumbling and failing schools now that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., has proposed the Native American Educational Opportunity Act.
The proposal would enable children attending Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools to access education savings accounts to attend a private school of choice and to afford other education opportunities.
Funding for Bureau of Indian Education Schools is unique among K-12 education financing because it is almost entirely federal. Moreover, the Native American Education Improvement Act of 2001 makes clear that “the Federal Government has the sole responsibility for the operation and financial support of the Bureau of Indian Affairs funded school system.”
But even a quick look at that system reveals just how poorly the federal government has handled that responsibility.
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GAO-16-313, March 10
The Department of the Interior’s (Interior) Office of the Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs (Indian Affairs) lacks sound information on safety and health conditions of all Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) school facilities. Specifically, GAO found that Indian Affairs’ national information on safety and health deficiencies at schools is not complete and accurate because of key weaknesses in its inspection program, which prevented GAO from conducting a broader analysis of schools’ safety and health conditions. Indian Affairs’ policy requires its regional safety inspectors to conduct inspections of all BIE schools annually to identify facility deficiencies that may pose a threat to the safety and health of students and staff. However, GAO found that 69 out of 180 BIE school locations were not inspected in fiscal year 2015, an increase from 55 locations in fiscal year 2012. Agency officials told GAO that vacancies among regional staff contributed to this trend. As a result, Indian Affairs lacks complete information on the frequency and severity of health and safety deficiencies at BIE schools nationwide and cannot be certain all school facilities are currently meeting safety requirements.
The BIE is responsible for providing quality education opportunities to Indian students. It currently oversees 185 schools, serving about 41,000 students on or near Indian reservations. Poor student outcomes raise questions about how well BIE is achieving its mission. In September 2013, GAO reported that BIE student performance has been consistently below that of Indian students in public schools.
This testimony discusses Indian Affairs’ management challenges in improving Indian education, including (1) its administration of schools, (2) staff capacity to address schools’ needs, and 3) accountability for managing school construction and monitoring school spending.
This testimony is based on GAO reports issued in September 2013 and November 2014, as well as GAO’s February 2015 testimony, which presents preliminary results from its ongoing review of BIE school facilities. A full report on school facilities will be issued later this year. GAO reviewed relevant laws and regulations; analyzed agency data; and conducted site visits to schools, which were selected based on their geographic diversity and other factors.
GAO has made several recommendations in its earlier reports; it is not making any new recommendations in this statement.
For more information, contact Melissa Emrey-Arras at (617) 788-0534 or email@example.com.
To view the highlights page, the testimony in PDF or to read further on the GAO’s website, click here.