A “miigwech” and “pidamaya” — Ojibwe and Dakota for “thank you” — is in order for Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and a working group of American Indian leaders and educators convened after Star Tribunes editorials documented deplorable conditions at the Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig High School near Bena.
Moving quickly over the holidays and at the beginning of the year, the working group of about two dozen people met multiple times to come up with pragmatic ways to boost education not just at the federally funded Bug school but at all of the schools serving the state’s estimated 20,000 American Indian K-12 students. Most Indian children in Minnesota attend a public school. The Bug school, where Ojibwe culture is at the center of the school day, is one of four Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools in the state.
On Wednesday, the working group’s recommendations were outlined to both the state House and Senate by Cassellius and leaders from Minnesota’s 11 Ojibwe and Dakota communities. Among the key changes the group suggested:
• Boosting funding for the state’s proven “Success for the Future” grants. Gov. Mark Dayton has called for increasing annual funding from $2.14 million to $4.5 million to double the schools served. The working group would increase annual funding even more — to $7.5 million — and expand the program to more schools. Data for the program, which provides math coaching, mentoring and other support, shows higher graduation rates for Indian students who participate.
• Appropriating $1.6 million a year for a new “Early Childhood in Tribal Communities” program.
• Lifting the $1,500-per-pupil cap in the state’s unique BIE Tribal School Equalization program. Federal per-student funding in the four schools is about half of that in state schools. The additional state money would boost annual funding from about $1.1 million to $2.23 million next year and $2.76 million in 2017 to reduce this shameful gap.
The respectful back-and-forth between legislators and tribal community members in the House hearing prompted Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Hermantown, to call the hearing “historic” and “monumental” after a decade of dwindling state support for Indian students. State officials said Minnesota’s graduation rate for Indian students, which just topped 50 percent, was the lowest in the nation, according to a report released two years ago. That’s unacceptable.
Dayton ought to capitalize on last week’s momentum to fund these work group recommendations in his supplemental budget. The state’s Republican lawmakers also ought to provide support. Two-thirds of the state’s Indian students attend school outside of the metro area. This is a chance to make good on the party’s campaign promises to better serve Greater Minnesota.