Indian Country 2015 Legislative Update

A number of new and continuing initiatives impacting Indian Country are under consideration by the legislature this session. Among the efforts is a bill that seeks to increase and provide equitable reimbursements for non-tribal students who attend tribal colleges. In committee, Rep. Webber provided an amendment to the bill that will provide a modest increase to the per-student funding, but most importantly this bill will ensure that this funding adjusts for inflation over time. We are excited to report that the Montana House of Representatives voted to pass the bill on second reading with an 88-12 vote. House Bill 196 was fortunate to have such strong bi-partisan support. As Rep. Scwaderer said, “we’ve done a lot of work to pass good bills for schools in Indian Country. This is just step one, so be sure to let other people know about this bill.”

Also related to education is the now five-year-old Schools of Promise program spearheaded by the Office of Public Instruction. Montana Schools of Promise, established in 2009, provides school improvement grants to schools across the state dealing with challenges of low student achievement, as measured by test scores, and low graduation rates. The program provides state and local staff to assist with not only academic progress but also support for mental health and graduation concerns. It also assists the local school board. Shortly after the program’s inception, Montana received $11.6 million in federal funds in the form of a school improvement grant as well.

Montana Schools of Promise focused exclusively on schools located on reservations, an indication of the wider issues faced by those living in Indian Country. Indeed, American Indians nationwide experience the dual challenges of high poverty and high dropout rates – both figures registering at nearly double the national average. This is significant for Montana as 1 out of every 10 students in the state is Native.

Montana Schools of Promise sought to counter these negative statistics and, by many measures, succeeded. For example, Pryor, located on the Crow Indian Reservation, had a 100% graduation rate last year. House Bill 314 aimed at expanding the program to four additional schools, sponsored by Representative Pease-Lopez of Billings, is scheduled for a hearing in House Appropriations this afternoon. You can watch the hearing here starting at 3 pm.

One topic that has yet to elicit much movement, but holds the potential to, is language preservation. At issue is the fact that barely 10% of the Native languages that are estimated to have once existed remain. In an effort to curb the trend toward continued cultural loss, Governor Bullock, at the conclusion of the last legislative session in 2013, signed into law the Montana Indian Language Preservation Pilot Program (MILP), a $2 million initiative engaging all eight of Montana’s tribal communities in the evaluation and documentation of and continued engagement with Native languages. You can read our report titled Continued Preservation of Tribal Languages in Montana to learn more.

Among the projects undertaken by these groups were the creation of language education courses, a move supported by the production of various dictionaries and sound books. While very little has been reported on the program since it became law nearly two years ago, clues from the original bill, including a September 2014 deadline and a termination date of June 2015, suggest that the program, temporary by its very nature, is nearing its end. Governor Bullock included $1.5 million in his 2017 budget for continued funding of this project. The question remains whether the legislature will approve his request.

For years now, we have stressed the importance of Medicaid expansion to Indian Country. We were exited to hear the remarks of Representative G. Bruce Meyers, a resident of the Rocky Boy Reservation, when he testified at a hearing on the issue a few weeks back that it is not “just as American Indians or for white farmers and ranchers, but our destiny as Montanans. ”

Mary Craigle, Bureau Chief of the Census and Economic Information Center Bureau, reminded us of the impact these issues have on our state’s economic development when she stated during a recent Montana American Indian Caucus meeting that her office estimates that Indian Country contributes $1 billion annually to our state’s economy. Ultimately, all Montanans can benefit from these efforts, both through higher-quality education, improved access to health care, and a more informed cultural understanding of our fellow Montanans.

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