PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — People up in the gallery and lawmakers down in the chamber broke into applause Wednesday, after the South Dakota Senate approved legislation that allows up to four public school districts to open special schools that emphasize tribal cultures and languages.
The 35-0 vote capped weeks of work between Senate Democratic leader Troy Heinert, Republican Governor Kristi Noem, Senate Education Committee members including chairman Blake Curd, the state Department of Education, education groups, parents and grandparents.
SB 66 now heads to the House of Representatives. Heinert, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, said some tribal students have been successful but schools in Indian country generally have had 50 percent dropout rates for 60 years.
“We’ve come a long ways, but we’re not there yet,” he said. “The key to this for our kids is relevance.”
The one down note came when Senator Deb Soholt, a Sioux Falls Republican, reminded senators that in 2016 the Legislature approved a $2.2 million career-grants program for Native American schools and communities. She asked how this would be different.
Heinert said results varied but at Todd County Middle School, referrals of students to the office went down 70 percent in the first year, test scores improved, school climate changed and students felt proud.
Soholt agreed that something needs to be done but said the Senate needs to be “cautious” with funding.
Senator Jim Bolin, a Canton Republican, said this was the time to begin moving ahead. Said Senator Phil Jensen, a Rapid City Republican: “If learning a language helps, so be it.” He added, “I think this community school would be a huge step in this direction.”
Senator Wayne Steinhauer, a Hartford Republican, said he hoped the bill becomes law. “It will continue to improve, I believe,” Steinhauer said.
The state department in 2007 started developing the Oceti Sakowin essential understandings and standards, so teachers and students could become familiar with tribal ways and words.
“This is not just a bunch of Native Americans going to a school for themselves,” Steinhauer said. He described the legislation as a disciplined approach that’s overlaid with traditional tribal values.
The legislation “cuts across all lines — party lines, et cetera,” said Senator Brock Greenfield, a Clark Republican. “I believe we’re the people at the appointed time to get the job done.”
Senator Rocky Blare, an Ideal Republican, said the 25-section bill was lengthy because it’s good. “What I love is the willing attitude,” Blare said.
Senator Red Dawn Foster, a Pine Ridge Democrat and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, said the legislation was in the best interest of all South Dakota.
Heinert noted Rosebud Sioux Tribe president Rodney Bordeaux sent a letter of support for the bill.
“I think you can see the importance of this,” Heinert said. “We can change history right here.”