- Associated Press - Thursday, February 20, 2020

PIERRE, S.D. (AP) - A proposal to establish South Dakota schools focused on Native American language and culture won unanimous approval Thursday in a Senate committee, despite warnings from education lobbyists that the schools could siphon money away from districts.

The plan headed next to the full Senate for a floor vote has already gone through three committees and eight revisions, changing enough that Republican Gov. Kristi Noem has become a supporter.

Educators want to start four Oceti Sakowin schools that would teach a curriculum centered around Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota language and culture.

Many education groups, however, said they were reluctant opponents. They applauded the attempts to improve education for Native American students but said the proposal was not clear enough on how the schools would be implemented and that the current system already allows for curriculum innovations.

“If you’re not successful, this could be a colossal failure,” said Dianna Miller, a lobbyist for the Large School Group.

The schools would have to apply to school districts to establish a school within the district and they receive funding based on the number of students enrolled in the schools. They would purchase or lease school facilities independently from the school districts.

Educators who want to start the Oceti Sakowin schools traveled to the state Capitol nearly three weeks ago to tell lawmakers how the current school system is not working for many Native American students - leading to drop-outs and students feeling ashamed of their identity.

Despite initial opposition from Noem’s office, senators were convinced enough by the educators’ passion to give the bill a chance, said Sarah Pierce, the director for the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition, the group trying to start the schools. Senators gave the group two weeks to work with the governor’s office to come up with a revised proposal.

“That gave us the needed momentum,” Pierce said.

In that time, the bill underwent several rewrites, but the group got to make their case about why the schools would give Native Americans a chance to educate on their own terms and how that may result in better rates of high school graduation and college attendance. They compromised on some aspects of the bill to get the governor’s office on board.

The bill originally called the schools “charter” schools, which aren’t allowed in South Dakota. The bill relabeled them as “community-based” schools.

“We have nothing to lose, to be honest,” said Sen. Troy Heinert, a Mission Democrat who introduced the bill. He has aggressively pushed the concept to the governor’s office and education groups, even lobbying the lobbyists to sit down and hash out the bill.

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