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GAO: Better Data Needed As Bad Tribal Roads Could Lead to Native Student Absences

According to a GAO report, the condition of tribal roads has a direct connection to absences for Indian youth on tribal lands and more data is needed.

The federal Government Accountability Office has rapped the Department of the Interior for deficiencies in data collection for tribal roads on tribal lands, something that could impact American Indian student attendance at schools.

“The Bureau of Indian Education’s schools generally do not collect data on transportation-related causes for absences, despite broader federal guidance that recommends doing so. BIE’s attendance system lists causes, but transportation-related causes are currently not among them. Thus, BIE cannot quantify the effect of road conditions and target appropriate interventions,” says a new GAO study.

“Rough road conditions in some areas also contribute to greater wear on school vehicles and associated higher maintenance costs,” it concludes.


Among eight recommendations in the report is one to require BIE to provide guidance to collect transportation-related school absence data.

Interior, responding to this recommendation, said BIE will explore adding a field to its database to see if absence has been caused by inclement weather or transportation.

GAO, a non-partisan investigative arm of Congress, found “in a census of public school districts and schools taken during the school year 2013–14, the national chronic absence rate for Indian students was 23 percent per year as compared to the national average of 14 percent per year for non-Indian students.”

While GAO had no study of the effect of tribal road conditions on absences, it reviewed studies on foreign nations and found “poor road conditions can decrease school attendance and road improvements can increase attendance.”

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GAO visited three reservations to look into tribal road conditions and attendance patterns. “Road conditions are one of the factors leading to absences for Indian youth on tribal lands, according to officials at all 10 local schools and districts we visited serving three tribes,” it wrote.

“On large reservations as with the three we visited, students may live far from school, and in many cases their residences and schools are only accessible by earth and gravel roads. At these 10 schools and districts, officials told us that adverse weather worsens road conditions on tribal lands and sometimes affects student attendance.”

In addition, “School and district officials also mentioned that school attendance was lower when they altered or halted school bus routes because of adverse weather conditions that compounded the already poor road conditions.”

Just three of the 10 schools it visited collected data on school absences due to poor weather or road conditions, GAO noted.

“The percentage of absences at these three locations due to adverse weather and road conditions ranged from a fraction of 1 percent to 4 percent,” it reported. “The other five BIE schools we visited did not collect data in a way that would capture absences due to road and weather conditions.”

Besides increased transportation time and risks to student safety, bad road conditions can also affect vehicle maintenance costs.

However, “BIE’s formula for determining amounts to allocate to BIE schools for transportation, which was formalized in 2005, does not distinguish between gravel and paved roads,” GAO pointed out. “Because BIE’s school transportation funding formula does not consider the likely higher maintenance costs for vehicles traveling on rough gravel roads, its allocation of resources may be misaligned with needs.”

The GAO report mentions that two of the homelands visited were the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations of the Lakota, both in South Dakota.