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Montana education funding debated

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HELENA, Mont. - The Montana House on March 29 rejected a bill that would
have provided additional funding for the long-stalled Indian Education for
All initiative in the state's public schools.

Rep. Carol Juneau's House Bill 791 called for $6.1 million more to be
allocated for the program, on top of $2.2 million requested by Gov. Brian
Schweitzer's in his 2006 - '07 budget proposal and an additional $1.4
million already approved by the House Appropriations Committee.

Juneau and other proponents argued that more money is needed to adequately
fund the program, which envisions teaching all Montana school children
about American Indian history, culture and contemporary issues in an
integrated fashion. But the full House failed to pass H.R. 791 on a 53 - 47
second-reading vote.

Opposition to the measure came primarily from Republicans, who countered
that the Montana Office of Public Instruction should already be putting
pressure on school districts to implement education about Indians into
curriculums. The opponents contend there should be enough money in the
education system to fuel the program now, and that it's up to individual
districts - not a state bureaucracy - to ensure that its components are
incorporated.

But backers of the bill maintain the curriculum changes can't be
implemented unless schools are given enough money for pertinent classroom
materials and related professional staff training.

Indian Education for All has its roots in the 1972 Montana Constitution,
which declares that the state "recognizes the distinct and unique cultural
heritage of the American Indians and is committed in its educational goals
to the preservation of their cultural integrity."

In the decades since, tribal education leaders have worked to define what
that means in everyday terms. Several legal decisions along the way,
including one this month from the Montana Supreme Court, are helping to
shape the definitions.

In the 1999 Legislature, Juneau sponsored a successful bill that detailed
the legislative intent behind the constitution's words. The measure, now
part of state law, says that "every Montanan, whether Indian or non-Indian,
be encouraged to learn about the distinct and unique heritage of American
Indians in a culturally-responsive manner."

Additionally, the law says all school personnel in the state "should have
an understanding and awareness of Indian tribes to help them relate
effectively with Indian students and parents" and that such cultural
training must be provided.

Up until this point, however, no funding has ever been specifically
allocated by the Legislature for implementing the multi-pronged program.
And the money that's currently on the table could easily disappear as
lawmakers trim the state budget further in the session's final weeks.

"It is unconscionable that this state waited 33 years to act on this
issue," Juneau told the Appropriations Committee at a recent hearing on
H.R. 791. "It is time to make things right."

"If we don't, it's going to become more and more expensive," Jack Copps,
executive director of the Montana Quality Education Coalition, warned
lawmakers.

The committee, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, recently
approved the funding bill by a narrow 11 - 9 margin, which sent it to the
House floor for further consideration.

Adding horsepower to the debate was the Supreme Court's March 22 expanded
ruling on school funding inadequacies. The case was filed last year by
Copps and other education leaders.

The high court affirmed an earlier ruling by District Court Judge Jeffrey
Sherlock of Helena that the legislative branch failed to fulfill various
constitutional mandates for educating Montana's children.

The ruling also reiterated Sherlock's decision that said the state has thus
far shown "no commitment in its educational goals to the preservation of
[Indian] cultural identity."