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BIA school spending hard to justify, report finds
Friday, September 5, 2003

The Bureau of Indian Affairs spends more per student than the national average but lacks sufficient data to determine whether the money is adequate, according to a Congressional report released on Thursday.

BIA's schools received more than $600 million in federal funds last year, the General Accounting Office (GAO) said. About $500 million came from the Department of Interior while about $140 million was provided by the Department of Education, figures show.

Overall, the BIA spends an average of $9,167 per student at the 112 day schools it operates, Congressional investigators said. The amount was higher than the national average of $6,617 per student.

But by looking at BIA schools in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota, and similar public schools in the same states, GAO found that spending was on par. BIA allocated $10,140 per student compared to $10,358 per student in the public schools.

"This similarity, however, does not ensure adequacy," the report said, noting that the BIA allocates more for non-teaching areas. "[A]ll the BIA schools we visited spent less on instruction and more on facilities than their public school counterparts," GAO said.

Certain factors also mean BIA students aren't receiving the same bang for their buck as public school students, according to GAO. "BIA schools contend with very high poverty rates, large numbers of students with limited English proficiency, isolation, and many less than adequate facilities, all of which are associated with the high costs of education," the report said.

Getting to the bottom of BIA's budget proved somewhat of a challenge for Congressional investigators. The six formulas BIA uses to distribute money appear to be fair, GAO said, but the lack of sufficient data made it difficult to determine "the overall adequacy of the formulas."

In particular, the formula for transportation is almost certainly inadequate, GAO said. About 40 percent of all BIA schools spent more money transporting students than they were allocated in school year 2001-2002, the report stated.

"[S]ome schools made up [transportation] shortfalls by spending money from funds primarily intended for instruction," GAO found.

The government also lacks complete expenditure data for two-thirds of Indian Country schools because they are operated by tribes through contracts or grants. "The expenditure data BIA collects does not reveal in detail how funds are actually spent," the report said.

To improve accountability and ensure schools are receiving enough money, the report makes several recommendations. BIA should collect more data for all schools, whether tribally-operated or not, GAO urges.

BIA should improve the transportation formula, the report recommends. And the agency should conduct a top-to-bottom review "to identify and allocate all costs of administering BIA-funded schools," including how much BIA's central office and regional offices spend, GAO says.

In a response to the report, acting assistant secretary Aurene Martin said BIA agreed with recommendations to collect more data. But she said Congress has to modify existing law in order to require tribes to provide more data about their expenditures.

"We would be happy to work with Congress to development amendments which would provided appropriation information," she wrote in the August 28 comment letter.

Martin said a group of federal and Indian representatives was working on a change to the transportation formula. The No Child Left Behind Act negotiated rulemaking committee has its final meeting later this month.

The BIA school system consists of 171 day schools and 14 dormitory-based schools. About 48,000 students attend the schools, 70 percent of which are located on or near reservations in Arizona, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota.

Get the Report:
Expenditures in Selected Schools Are Comparable to Similar Public Schools, but Data Are Insufficient to Judge Adequacy of Funding and Formulas (September 4, 2003)

Related GAO Reports:
Bureau of Indian Affairs Schools: New Facilities Management Information System Promising, but Improved Data Accuracy Needed (July 31, 2003) | School Facilities: Reported Condition and Costs to Repair Schools Funded by Bureau of Indian Affairs (December 1997) | BIA and DOD Schools: Student Achievement and Other Characteristics Often Differ from Public Schools (September 2001)

Relevant Links: Office of Indian Education Programs, BIA -

Related Stories:
BIA makes changes at Indian education office (08/07)
GAO finds data problems with BIA system (08/04)
Controversial BIA school proposal dropped (05/16)
Leave no Indian child behind (5/15)
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GAO report finds failing BIA schools (10/29)
Final BIA school goes online (8/24)
Norton, McCaleb to address Indian educators (7/23)
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