Lawsuit, bill proponents say Indian Education for All funds unaccounted for

By: - February 7, 2023 4:11 pm

The Montana State Capitol pictured on Feb. 6, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

Montana spends $3.5 million a year to make sure that students in public schools learn about Indigenous culture in the classrooms. But an advocate told lawmakers on Monday that more than half of that funding for “Indian Education for All” has not been accounted for.

Though a current lawsuit, filed by Montana tribes, alleges that Montana is failing its constitutional obligation to provide Indian Education for All, lawmakers want to tighten the standards for teaching and reporting.

House Bill 338 was heard in the House Education Committee on Monday and would tighten up language in existing statute to require, instead of encourage, all students receive instruction in American Indian studies.

And they want answers from the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

“According to state agency records at present almost half of the dedicated funding for Indian Education for All is unaccounted for on an annual basis,” said Keegan Medrano with the ACLU. “Yet the state agencies continue to distribute the funding to schools year after year.”

Rep. Lee Deming, R-Laurel, asked OPI representative Ken Bailey to confirm this, to which Bailey said he would take the request back to the department for answers.

Indian Education for All was enacted in 1999 and mandated “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.”

The 2021 lawsuit said of the $6.7 million in statewide Indian Education for All funding appropriated for Montana public school districts for the combined Fiscal Years 2019 and 2020, almost 50% (nearly $3.5 million) was unaccounted for.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, wants to make a change that would require districts to give more detailed reports and accounting about how the funds are being used and what programs are being implemented, or risk losing the funding.

Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D- Box Elder.

now, there is no penalty for noncompliance.

Representing the Blackfeet Tribe, Patrick Yawakie said the way the law is currently written, it allows school districts to cut corners and not deliver the resources needed for instructors to effectively teach the Native history and culture curriculum. He said this bill provides greater accountability and enforcement.

Yawakie said Indian Education for All provides a foundation and historical context that prepares K-12 students for a broader understanding of the world they live in.

“Native American culture and history can provide important education in science and math. It also provides a legal context with respects to tribal treaties and federal Indian policy, as well as culture in music and art,” he said.

This bill would work in conjunction with another Windy Boy bill, House Bill 287, which revised the Montana Indian Language Preservation Program so that the program would be administered by OPI. This would eliminate the Historical Society from participation, where Windy Boy said records of the $8 million investment in language preservation from each tribe has been stored in the basement.

HB 287 passed unanimously out of House Education last week. The committee did not immediately take action on HB 338.

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.