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Montana education bills advance

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HELENA, Mont. - Tribal colleges in Montana are poised to see a significant
boost in funding from the state if backers can keep proposed funding
increases from being cut in the Legislature.

According to Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, the House Appropriations
Committee recently agreed to add $500,000 in the next budget biennium to
the proposed allocation for so-called non-beneficiary state resident
students who attend the seven tribally-controlled colleges in Montana.

That amount is on top of $400,000 already proposed by Democratic Gov. Brian
Schweitzer in his 2006 - '07 budget.

Non-beneficiary students are either non-Indian or American Indians and/or
descendants who aren't enrolled in federally recognized tribes. All Montana
tribal colleges readily open their doors to these students, but the schools
don't receive any federal funding to help pay for the cost of educating

If the proposed $900,000 in state appropriations remains intact, budget
figures show it would represent the most money that has ever been allocated
to tribal colleges since the state's non-beneficiary program was created by
the 1995 state Legislature.

In comparison, former Gov. Judy Martz, a Republican, proposed only $96,500
in non-beneficiary funding for the 2006 - '07 budget cycle. And in the
current fiscal year, no state money is available to the tribal schools.

The pending funding is related to House bill 16, sponsored by Rep. Rick
Ripley, R-Wolf Creek. H.B.16 calls for the state's distribution limit for
non-beneficiary tribal college students to be raised from $1,500 apiece to
$3,024, or the same maximum authorization the state provides for students
attending its community colleges.

H.B.16 was requested unanimously by the State-Tribal Relations Interim
Committee and received House approval Feb. 16 by a 91 - 3 margin. A new
hearing on the measure took place March 9 in the Senate Education and
Cultural Resources Committee.

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Alice Chumrau, vice president of Salish Kootenai College (SKC) in Pablo,
Mont., told the committee that H.B. 16 is not a partisan political issue,
but a matter of all Montanans having access to education.

Chumrau said that between 1998 and 2003, SKC was home to 61 percent of all
non-beneficiary students in the state. That, she said, is in part due to
the fact that the ratio of non-Indians to Indians on the Flathead
Reservation is about 3 - 1.

These students, SKC President Joe McDonald has noted, currently cost the
school about $1 million a year. If the financial shortfalls aren't
decreased through state funding, tuitions and fees for non-beneficiaries
may have to be raised.

H.B. 16's proponents point out that tribal colleges provide essential
education opportunities in areas of the state that are largely isolated and
afflicted with high poverty. They contend the state should share the costs
because many of these students move on to state universities, which
directly benefit from the training received at the tribal schools.

The tribal facilities, they say, provide a critical stepping stone for many
students who might not attend college elsewhere and serve as important
clearinghouses for the preservation of tribal cultures and languages. And
as Chumrau noted, there's at least a seven-fold return on the state's
investment when these students graduate, enter careers and begin earning
higher wages.

"This bill makes good economic sense," Chumrau said.

Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Sheila Sterns, who also spoke in
favor of the bill, said the Board of Regents voted last year to allocate
the full authorized amount to tribal colleges for their non-beneficiary
students. Now all that's needed is the funding to match the need.

"There's no better investment we can make," Sterns said.

The governor's budget, meanwhile, also proposes that another $2 million be
appropriated for tribal college equipment and for writing tribal histories
to be used in Montana's "Indian Education for All" program.