Minnesota lawmakers must not squander the opportunity at hand to take a serious run at improving the state’s still dismal educational outcomes for its American Indian students.
For years, state attention and support dwindled precipitously for this disadvantaged group of students. Minnesota is one of 14 states with 100,000 or more Indians living within its borders. There are about 19,000 school-age Indian students attending the state’s public, charter and four federal Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) schools. According to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report, Minnesota was last in a state-by-state ranking of Indian student high school graduation rates. That’s unacceptable in a state so reliant on its highly educated workforce.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has proved to be a forceful advocate for these students, and the state has made some headway. About half of the state’s Indian students now earn high school diplomas — an improvement that also underscores how much work lies ahead.
There has been welcome, bipartisan interest this session in tackling this critical educational challenge — one that is especially important to greater Minnesota. About two-thirds of Indian students live outside of the metro. A Star Tribune series of editorials on dilapidated BIE schools also revealed gaps in educational resources and outcomes.
After consulting with the state’s tribal leaders and educators, Gov. Mark Dayton and Cassellius called for a historic yet affordable $20 million Indian education initiative this year. The new aid would expand the proven “Success for the Future” program — one that has boosted math scores and attendance — to every school district with at least 20 Indian students. Dayton and Cassellius also would lift the cap on the state’s unique equalization aid for BIE schools, providing assistance while these schools wait for federal officials to boost funding.
Neither the Minnesota Senate nor the House comes close matching these sums, though the Senate goes much further than the House does to strengthen both programs. State Sen. Terri Bonoff’s push to increase higher education scholarships for Indian students also merits support. Although $20 million in the scope of the state budget is a relatively small sum, it would go far to address dismal educational disparities that the state can’t afford to ignore. As legislators hash out education priorities in the closing days, the emphasis should be on making a substantive rather than halfhearted investment in these deserving Minnesota kids.