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New Bill Would Give Native American Students School Choice

Bill would allow Native American students to create education savings accounts

In this Sept. 9, 2014, photo, Joan Willow leads her classroom at Arapahoe Elementary School in Arapahoe, Wyo. on the Wind River Indian Reservation
Joan Willow leads her classroom at Arapahoe Elementary School on the Wind River Indian Reservation / AP
• September 6, 2016 12:20 pm

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A bill introduced by Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) that would allow education savings accounts to be created with federal funding for eligible Native American students is scheduled for mark up and a vote on Wednesday.

The bill, the Native American Education Opportunity Act, would allow certain students attending schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education to attend a school of their choice or create a customized learning environment.

Eligible Native American students would be able to transfer 90 percent of their share of federal funding into an education savings account. In order for a student to use federal funding in a state education savings account program, the student must be eligible for an account under state program rules.

The Arizona-based Goldwater Institute developed the idea of a K-12 education savings account modeled on education savings accounts for college expenses in 2005. Arizona became the first state in the country to adopt the concept in 2011.

"Sen. McCain is taking an important step to help students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools. Native American students are—on average—among the lowest performing students in the country, but students attending BIE schools score lower than their Native peers at traditional public schools," said Jonathan Butcher, education director at the Arizona-based Goldwater Institute, in an email.

"BIE high school students have graduation rates hovering around 50 percent. Education savings accounts can help these children find opportunities that meet their unique needs, just as the accounts have helped children from different walks of life in Arizona, Florida, and Mississippi (and soon, Tennessee and Nevada)," Butcher said.

Twenty-three states have BIE schools and education savings accounts have been adopted in five of those states—Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Nevada, and Tennessee. Similar laws have been introduced in a dozen other states including Iowa, Minnesota, Montana, Oklahoma, and Oregon.

The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is scheduled to discuss proposed amendments to the bill and vote on whether the bill will advance to the full Senate on Wednesday.