Red Mesa Elementary School students carry bags of candy as they march in the high school’s homecoming parade in 2014. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)​
Red Mesa Elementary School students carry bags of candy as they march in the high school’s homecoming parade in 2014. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)​

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Education spends nearly 56 percent more money than American public schools on each student, but many Native Americans learn in facilities that are languishing in poor condition, according to federal auditors.

A report this week from the Government Accountability Office said the agency has struggled to staff, manage and repair its schools, largely because of a broken bureaucracy.

GAO official Melissa Emrey-Arras testified about the problems before a House subcommittee on Wednesday, saying some of the issues could impact Native Americans’ educational achievement.

[From broken homes to a broken system for Indian Youths]

The structural problems include faulty construction, broken hot-water heaters, electrocution hazards and mold. In one example, auditors found that Indian Education spent $3.5 million on new roofs that began leaking shortly after they were finished.

Drinking fountains at Red Mesa High School in Arizona. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Drinking fountains at Red Mesa High School in Arizona. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The bureau also suffers from high leadership turnover, inconsistent accountability, poor communication between offices, a lack of strategic planning and a dearth of financial experts to manage spending, auditors said.

The “systemic management challenges,” as the report described them, have hindered the agency’s efforts to improve student achievement and sustain key initiatives, according to the report.

The problems have persisted for years, despite the bureau spending significantly more than U.S. public schools in general. A 2014 GAO analysis found that the agency spends an estimated $15,000 per pupil on average, while public schools nationwide spend an estimated average of about $9,900.

The numbers are skewed by the fact that Indian Education schools tend to have a higher percent of students with special needs than public schools nationally. But auditors determined that the bureau has nonetheless “failed to provide effective oversight of schools when they misspent millions of dollars in federal funds.”

Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.), who heads the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, said that turning a blind eye to the challenges is not the answer.

“It is paramount that we uphold our promise to provide Native American children an excellent education that preserves their tribal heritage,” the lawmaker said in a statement on Wednesday. “The federal government must live up to its responsibility.”

Indian Education spokeswoman Nedra Darling said Thursday that the bureau is “deep into the process of fixing the problems that the GAO highlighted.”

She added that the Secretary of the Interior, whose department includes Indian Education, is working to improve communications, centralize management responsibilities and increase accountability.

“The president has asked Congress for significant increases in the budget to accomplish many of these goals and to increase staff available to serve tribal schools and BIE-run schools,” Darling said.