By STEPHEN GROVES
PIERRE, S.D. (AP) ~ Proponents of creating schools in South Dakota that focus on teaching Native American language and culture have two weeks to rework their proposal, after Gov. Kristi Noem opposed the initiative.
A Senate committee on Thursday deferred a bill that would create Oceti Sakowin schools that teach Lakota, Dakota and Nakota language and culture. Several teachers are trying to open schools in Native American communities that would attempt to address educational achievement gaps between Native American students and the state’s other students.
“I see a system that isn’t working and we’re looking for something that is working,” said Sage Fast Dog, an educator who is planning to open a school on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.
Fast Dog said that only 5% of students in his community graduate from college.
Parents testified about how children had struggled with their identity after facing teachers and schoolmates who were insensitive to the culture of the Oceti Sakowin, which is commonly known as Sioux. They said the schools would be modeled after Native American Community Academy Schools in New Mexico and would instill a sense of identity in students.
They also argued that the money invested in education now would pay dividends in the future by giving students the education they need to land jobs that keep them off of expensive social programs.
Several representatives from Noem’s office testified in opposition, saying that the current school system can incorporate cultural programs and that her office is working to improve education in Native American communities.
Noem said that her concerns were with the language in the bill and that she would continue to work with tribal members to improve education in those areas. She said she discussed the proposal with tribal leaders just before the session.
But Crow Creek Sioux Tribe Chairman Lester Thompson said that after proposing the schools to Noem before the session he didn’t hear from the governor’s office until Wednesday evening, when he was told she would oppose it.
“Maybe we’re not as high as a priority as it’s being stated,” Thompson said.
Noem said she supported the spirit of the initiative but could not support the legislation without looking at the details. The bill was introduced last week.
Education Secretary Ben Jones said he would be working with the proponents in the coming weeks. He said there were “fundamental flaws in the bill,” but supported new initiatives that educate based on students’ culture and identity.
Tiffany Sanderson, an advisor to the governor, pointed to Spanish-immersion schools as an example of alternative curricula that are allowed.
Several other education groups opposed the bill, saying the proposal would take money away from public schools and lacked specifics on who would be overseeing the schools.
Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission, proposed an amendment to the bill that changed the term “charter” to “community-based” schools. He said that striking the word “charter” from the proposal may make it more palatable to legislators.
The Senate committee gave proponents two weeks to work with the governor’s office to present amendments to the bill.
Sen. V.J. Smith, a Brookings Republican, said he hoped the governor’s office would use the time to work with people who want to start the schools.