Feds run the worst schools in America

Navajo students ride home from Lukachukai Community School in Arizona. Credit: M. Scott Mahaskey

The Bureau of Indian Education’s network of schools for Native American children is “arguably the worst school system in the United States,” writes Maggie Severns on Politico. Reports have detailed its failures for 80 years. “It’s just the epitome of broken,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Politico. “Just utterly bankrupt.”

Tucked into the desert hills on a Navajo reservation 150 miles east of the Grand Canyon, Crystal (Boarding School) has cracks running several feet down the walls, leaky pipes in the floors and asbestos in the basement. Students come from extremely troubled backgrounds, but there is no full-time counselor. Last year, a new reading coach took one look at the rundown cinder block housing and left the next day. Science and social studies have been cut to put more attention on the abysmal reading and math scores, but even so, in 2013 only 5 percent of students were considered to have grade-level math skills.

. . . The 48,000 students unfortunate enough to attend BIE schools have some of the lowest test scores and graduation rates in the country — even as the education they’re getting is among the nation’s most expensive: At $15,000 per pupil, the system costs 56 percent more than the national average.

“Frankly, we spend an enormous amount per student relative to other school systems for terrible results,” Cecilia Muñoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, said.

After a visit to a Sioux reservation in South Dakota last year, President Obama called for “a pathway that leads to change.”
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The Interior Department wants to replace bureaucrats with education experts, improve teacher training and allow more tribal control. However, the proposal has many critics who “warn that paring back the federal government’s role will only make it easier to under-invest in schools that, by almost any measure, need money and resources the most,” writes Severns.

Corruption and mismanagement have plagued BIE schools. Often located in isolated and very poor areas, the schools have trouble attracting and retaining competent teachers. However, I think the greatest problem is that so many students come from “extremely troubled” families with high rates of alcoholism.

Students in Department of Defense schools outperform the average public school student. Black kids do especially well in DoD schools. Why? I think it’s the parents.

A report card is not destiny

In going through records from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls for his “permanent record” project, Paul Lukas discovered the saddest story, he writes in Slate. Doris Abravaya’s report card includes comments by school staffers:

Doris’s mother is insane and in Mental State Hospital. Father is paralyzed and crippled and a drunkard. Three children [including Doris] live in [a foster home]. … Doris has low mentality and is very timid and unstable. She constantly fears becoming like her mother. … Doris cannot work in a factory or workroom because her constitution cannot stand it. She had a nervous breakdown after her two weeks at [a previous job].

Doris finished her schooling in 1933 in the depths of the Depression. What happened to her? Lukas worried about her fate — until he met her two daughters.

She worked, married, raised her children, went back to work and retired to Florida with her husband. Her daughters remember her as an outgoing PTA leader.