American Indian education mandated by Montana

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HELENA, Mont. - After nearly 28 years of debate, Montana officials have adopted policies to ensure that students and teachers across the state learn more about American Indian history and culture.

The new policies, approved March 22 by the state Board of Public Education, also call for increasing the number of Indian teachers in Montana and expanding Native language programs, among other provisions.

"It's been quite a process," said Joyce Silverthorne, director of the Salish and Kootenai Education Department and chairwoman of the special committee that developed the standards.

"We've really come a long way. It's a culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people over years and years."

The board action was the result of House Bill 528, which was approved in the 1999 Legislature. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, requires the state to abide by Article X, Section 1 of the 1972 Montana Constitution.

That clause says the state recognizes the distinct and unique cultural heritage of Indians. It also promises to preserve their cultural integrity through education. Although numerous attempts have been made over the years to define the clause and develop policies to fit its mandate, past proposals have largely fallen by the wayside.

"All of these efforts were ineffectual to one degree or another ... ," the special committee, created last September, reported to the education board. "Our review indicated that two main reasons prevented the success of these efforts. The first was there was inadequate funding to carry out the programs to any effective completion. The second was the fact that there was an inadequate oversight mechanism to ensure a viable implementation, accountability and a evaluation of the process."

The new policies, unanimously adopted by resolution, require the state school board, the Office of Public Instruction (OPI), the commissioner of higher education, and the Montana Board of Regents to develop an "action plan" to jump-start programs and to work with tribal governments to determine "appropriate and culturally responsive educational goals."

Explaining the "history, culture, tribal sovereignty, and current status of the American Indian tribes in Montana" will be a primary focus, the board decided. Public Instruction, working in conjunction with tribal education leaders, will be responsible for developing model curriculums that "will be made available to all Montana public schools," the board said.

At the college level, the board wants Indian history and culture taught in teacher-education programs. It's also calling for the state's university system to recruit and retain more Indian students in teacher-training courses. The special committee will remain impaneled to help ensure the policies are carried out.

"We're quite pleased," says OPI's Kathy Bramer. "It's been a long time coming. It gives us the opportunity to have some very specific planning in how to support school districts in these areas."

"What the board of education did is a first-ever," Silverthorne says, adding that Republican Gov. Marc Racicot has been a strong supporter of the process. "This is kind of the first step, the tip of the iceberg."

Silverthorne also noted that the Board of Education approved all of the committee's recommendations and did not make any changes.

"I think it contains some direction for the leadership to follow," Juneau said, adding that some of the new initiatives will need increased funding to be carried out. "I'm happy with it at this point. I think it's great. Hopefully, we'll look back in five years and say we accomplished something here."