April 4, 2016

The Honorable Jon Tester

Vice Chairman

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Washington, D.C. 20510

The Honorable John Barrasso


Senate Committee on Indian Affairs

Washington, D.C. 20510


Re:           NCPE Opposes S. 2711, the Native American Education Opportunity Act


Dear Chairman Barrasso and Vice Chairman Tester:


The 45 undersigned organizations submit this letter for the hearing on S. 2711, the “Native American Education Opportunity Act,” to express our strong opposition to private school vouchers in the form of Education Savings Accounts (ESAs). ESAs are effectively no different than vouchers; they place funding that would ordinarily support students attending public schools into an account for students to use on other education expenses, including private school tuition. Like vouchers, ESAs divert desperately-needed federal resources away from the primary school system students attend to fund the education of a few, select students in alternative settings. Furthermore, voucher and ESA programs lack accountability, do not improve educational outcomes of students, strip students of rights, and do real harm to the public school systems that educate the majority of students in a state or district.  At a time when schools serving American Indian students are desperately in need of funding,  Congress would better serve all American Indian students by using federal funds to make schools serving American Indian students stronger and safer than by allowing funds to flow to a separate voucher program.

Although only currently available in five states, ESA programs are being pursued in many more states across the country. This bill would expand the current state programs by opening them up to more students and would also set a dangerous precedent of allocating federal funds to state voucher and ESA programs. As members of this Senate recently rejected efforts to include national voucher schemes in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA); this committee should similarly reject this voucher bill.


ESA and Voucher Programs Do Not Improve Educational Outcomes and Strip Students of Rights

Voucher programs have not proven effective in improving academic opportunities for students. According to multiple studies of the D.C.,  Milwaukee,  and Clevelandschool voucher programs, students offered vouchers do not perform better in reading and math than students in public schools. And, a 2016 study of the Louisiana voucher program revealed that students with vouchers actually performed worse on standardized tests — as much 50% worse in math scores in particular — than their peers not in the voucher program. 

Private schools that receive voucher and ESA students also do not adhere to all federal civil rights laws and public accountability standards that all public schools must meet, including those in Title IX, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and ESEA. For example, private schools can and do turn students away on the basis of students' or their parents' faith, sexual orientation, gender identity, health condition, and disability. Moreover, vouchers and ESAs violate religious liberty by primarily funding religious schools. Parents certainly may choose such an education for their children, but no taxpayer should be required to pay for another‘s religious education.


This Bill Will Harm BIE-Funded Schools

Draining dollars away from the chronically-underfunded Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools attended by American Indian students to fund private schools is particularly unwise. For example, it is estimated that it would take an additional $1.3 billion in federal funds just to properly maintain the current BIE schools.  And, allowing BIE funds to flow to ESAs would create even greater problems. First, BIE-funded schools in a state with an ESA program, like Nevada, may lose students because of the enactment of this legislation, yet would be left with the same academic obligations for its students but with fewer resources to meet their needs. In addition, BIE funds are allocated nationally and, as a result, losing students from the program in states with an ESA will affect the overall allocation for the program. States without ESA programs, therefore, could unfairly lose BIE funds to fund private schools in other states. Finally, an ESA would greatly hinder the BIE schools’ ability to pool resources to address long-standing maintenance issues, provide adequate transportation, and take advantage of economies of scale to address the academic needs of students. Congress should be allocating more, and not fewer resources to these schools.


This Bill Does Not Offer Students at BIE-Funded Schools a Real Choice

Contrary to what this bill implies, this program will not provide actual and meaningful choices outside of BIE and public schools, which 93% of American Indian students currently attend.  This is largely because the choice to attend a private school does not actually lie with the parent or student, but with the private school, which may turn students away for a variety of reasons. Additionally, the cost of attending many private schools exceeds the amount of funding provided to students in their ESA, meaning that only students with families with the financial means to make up the difference can actually attend such a private school. Moreover, the challenge of finding reliable transportation to take students on and off the reservation, especially in rural areas, would prove difficult, if not impossible, for many students.


This Bill Fails to Ensure that Federal Resources Are Appropriately Spent

Voucher and ESA programs offer little accountability to taxpayers: they generally do not require participating private schools to comply with the same teacher standards, curriculum, reporting, and testing requirements as public schools. S. 2711 would fund these programs with no additional accountability protections. The bill would allow federal funds to be used at unaccredited private or virtual schools, or used for home-schooling that does not use accredited, comprehensive curriculum. Indeed, a parent could use these federal funds and home-school their child using an unaccredited, homeschool curriculum, even if the curriculum is far inferior to what the child would receive in the BIE school. In contrast, BIE-funded schools are required to utilize the respective accountability systems of the 23 states in which its schools are located.



For these reasons and more, we oppose S. 2711. Congress should ensure that BIE-funded schools are effectively serving American Indian and Native students rather than funneling desperately-needed funds to private schools.

Thank you for your consideration of our concerns.


AASA: The School Superintendents Association

African American Ministers In Action

American Atheists

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)

American Federation of School Administrators (AFSA), AFL-CIO

American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME)

American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO

American Humanist Association

Americans for Religious Liberty

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Anti-Defamation League

Association of Educational Service Agencies

Association of School Business Officials International

Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty

Center for Inquiry

Clearinghouse on Women's Issues

Council of the Great City Schools

Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund

Disciples Justice Action Network

Equal Partners in Faith

Federation of Indian Service Employees

Feminist Majority Foundation

Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN)

Institute for Science and Human Values

Interfaith Alliance

League of United Latin American Citizens

National Alliance of Black School Educators

National Association of Elementary School Principals

National Association of Federally Impacted Schools

National Association of Secondary School Principals

National Association of State Directors of Special Education

National Council of Jewish Women

National Education Association

National Indian Impacted Schools Association

National Organization for Women

National PTA

National Rural Education Advocacy Coalition

National Rural Education Association

National School Boards Association

People For the American Way

School Social Work Association of America

Secular Coalition for America

Southern Poverty Law Center

Texas Freedom Network

Union for Reform Judaism