Montana teacher bill tabled

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HELENA, Mont. - Bills to encourage the hiring of more American Indian
teachers and to make it easier to appoint tribal members to the state Board
of Regents and Board of Public Education have quietly died in the Montana
House.

House Bill 258, sponsored by Rep. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, would
authorize public school districts to adopt an Indian hiring preference for
most positions except superintendents and clerks.

Contrary to some critics, H.B. 258 would not mandate schools to follow the
hiring policy. But if a district chose to adopt it, a preference would have
to be given to an Indian candidate over another candidate who is equally
qualified.

According to the state Office of Public Instruction (OPI), 11 percent of
public school students in Montana are Indian, but fewer than 3 percent of
teachers share the same heritage. Proponents of H.B. 258 contend that
having more Indian teachers in the classroom would help reduce the
shockingly high number of tribal students who drop out.

Tribal teachers provide positive role models in a variety of ways,
Wanzenried and Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, told the House Education
Committee in January. And tribal students, Juneau added, "need to see
themselves reflected in their school."

The committee, however, failed to approve the bill and missed a legislative
deadline for passage to the Senate. Similar measures also failed to pass
the legislature in the 2001 and 2003 sessions after Republican majorities
refused to enact them.

Meanwhile, H.B. 525, sponsored by Juneau, was designed to change the
districting requirements when a governor appoints members to the Board of
Public Education (which oversees elementary and high schools) and the Board
of Regents (which manages the state's higher education system).

Under current law, no more than four of the regents can be from the same
district. But H.B. 525 says "appointments may be made from any of the seven
Indian reservations in Montana without considering the district in which
the reservation is located."

A hearing on the proposed change took place in February before the House
Education Committee, but the measure was abruptly tabled a short time
later. Under House rules, the bills could be resurrected at anytime, but
the session is drawing to a close and that scenario appears unlikely.

Another bill by Juneau that would establish a new drop-out prevention and
tracking program through OPI is also on the ropes.

H.B. 137, requested by the State-Tribal Relations Interim Committee,
proposed that OPI provide "information, resources and technical assistance"
to districts that have identified at-risk students and need help keeping
them in school.

"The program must include but is not limited to a procedure to assist
school districts in identifying why students are dropping out of school,"
the bill read.

The measure was designed to mesh with fledgling "Indian Education for All"
programs the Montana Supreme Court agrees are mandated by the 1972 Montana
Constitution, but the bill failed to clear the House Education Committee
and is likely dead.

Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer included about $2.4 million in his
proposed 2006 - '07 state budget for the OPI program. That request is still
under review in the appropriations process.