PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — The need to try something different to help Native American students in South Dakota now has support from both Republicans and Democrats at the state Capitol.
A panel of state lawmakers agreed Thursday to a concept from Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert that Republican Governor Kristi Noem supports.
The latest version of SB 66 would allow non-profits in four school districts to establish separate schools specifically for Native American students.
The new schools would use the Oceta Sakowin essential understandings and standards already developed by the state Department of Education and feature each area’s indigenous language.
The Senate Education Committee voted 7-0 to endorse it. State Education Secretary Ben Jones told senators that he and his department are ready to help.
The former Dakota State University dean has visited schools throughout South Dakota, including in Indian country, since the governor chose him for the Cabinet post last year.
Backing Heinert’s idea were several tribal members and a lobbyist representing the Yankton Sioux and Crow Creek tribes and the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition.
Opponents Thursday included the statewide associations of school boards, school administrators and educators, as well as lobbyists representing large-enrollment and small-enrollment districts. They asked whether a law was necessary.
Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said 400 native-language speakers are being lost each year of late, with only 200 new ones replacing them.
“This school will help stop that loss and keep our language alive,” he said. “This is important to me.”
The four districts haven’t been identified. He said the new schools could even increase enrollment. “What do we have to lose?” Heinert asked.
Dianna Miller, a lobbyist for the large-schools group, raised a long list of questions against the bill and said she would rather see it tried in one district for a few years.
“I think a pilot would be the way to go, because then you have a measure of success,” Miller said, adding she doesn’t want to see “a colossal failure.”
Said Rob Monson, executive director for the school administrators, “This is an awfully big airplane we’re trying to build while flying.”
Monson, school boards executive director Wade Pogany and small-schools lobbyist Mitch Richter met with Heinert for more than an hour Tuesday to talk about his idea. They praised Heinert’s passion but had many questions too.
“I’m not sure what two school boards running a district looks like,” Pogany said.
Mary McCorkle, president for the South Dakota Education Association, said she was sad because “a legitimate concern” was being brought forward. “Speaking in opposition, we have to do a better job for our Native American students,” she said.
Deborah Bordeaux of Rapid City, who said she taught for 25 years before retiring, listened from the front row until opponents stopped testifying. Then she spoke in support.
“There’s nobody there doing this, and our children need help,” she said. “We need to find another way to work together, collaboratively, in South Dakota.”
Senator Wayne Steinhauer, a Hartford Republican, said the legislation was “a big opportunity.”
“The details come later,” he said. “It’s not perfect yet. This is the first step in the legislative process.”
Senator V.J. Smith, a Brooking Republican, praised the idea — “Senator Heinert, way to go!” — and said the concept was why he ran for the Legislature.
“Everyone has come a long ways in their thinking,” he said.
Senator Phil Jensen, a Rapid City Republican, said the issue came up during a recent cracker-barrel meeting with people from his area. “These are not throw-away children,” he said.
Senator Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican and retired school administrator, said changes are needed in Native American education. “Our current process is not working. Let’s give it a shot,” he said.
The committee chairman, Senator Blake Curd, said the legislation would need to change just as every bill could use improvements.
“Everything starts with one idea,” Curd said. “Without an idea, nothing comes to fruition.”
He also suggested the opponents should change their tone to a different “ism.”
“Enthusiasm,” Curd said.
The legislation could come up for debate in the Senate as early as Monday afternoon.