For the second year in a row, the Oceti Sakowin community-based schools bill has failed. This time, it failed on the Senate floor, where last year the same bill unanimously passed.
The text of the bill is exactly the same as last year’s version, which co-sponsor Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, told senators during the bill’s introduction to the floor on Monday.
During Thursday’s Senate meeting, Heinert proposed an amendment that would add “more permissive language” to the bill — changing a “shall” to a “may” and clarifying how the schools would receive state aid. That amendment passed, along with another amendment by Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, that changed the term “gender” to “sex” to reflect biological sex.
Although Heinert’s amendment was in response to some senators’ concerns voiced during Monday’s discussion on the bill, most were not convinced of the bill’s necessity, arguing that public school systems already have the opportunity to implement more culturally aware programming and allowing Oceti Sakowin community-based schools would set a precedent for future charter schools to take state funding away from public school districts.
“It’s a bad idea to promote public schools with private money,” Sen. Timothy Johns, R-Lead, said.
Sen. David Johnson, R-Rapid City, said it would be “entirely problematic” for the legislature to sponsor charter schools.
“We lost revenue to charter students in a state that already seriously underfunded public education, in my opinion,” Johnson said.
Sen. Jack Kolbeck, R-Sioux Falls, also spoke against the bill, saying Sioux Falls School District has implemented the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings into its social studies curriculum and that Native American issues and history is already being effectively addressed in the classroom, citing multiple efforts from the Sioux Falls School District.
“We need this to stay within our public school system. We need to get our school districts on board with this,” Kolbeck said.
Some senators pushed back, saying that the bill should be given a chance.
Sen. Wayne Steinhauer, R-Hartford, cited Native American students’ 50% graduation rate in the state, and said that the argument that the community schools would take away from other public school students ignores how school systems have been systemically failing Native students for years.
“[The low graduation rate is] probably because we’ve maybe been robbing from this ethnic group all along. We haven’t been doing them justice. Now if you’re from a district that’s doing great, you probably don’t have to worry about it. But we are elected not to just look after our district, we’re supposed to be looking across the whole state at what needs to be done for these individuals,” Steinhauer said. “I urge you to think outside the box and give this a chance.”
In his closing remarks, Heinert cited statewide data that puts Native graduation rates at 53%.
“Are you OK with those numbers? That’s what we have to ask ourselves. A 37% difference than their friends they go to school with. Is that because our kids can’t learn? No, it’s because the system somehow became irrelevant to them. They’re not talking to them,” Heinert said.
Heinert said that since the bill has been introduced, now school districts have come forward saying they can implement similar programs in schools without the need for new, community-based schools. “Where have you been in the last forty years?” he asked.
In closing, Heinert talked about a former student of his who was able to “get through” the system and went on to do great things. But three of the student’s classmates did not have the same experience and ended up falling behind, in school and life.
“I went to those funerals. Some of the happiest days of my life were when I was teaching. Some of the saddest were when I had to bury a child. We don’t want to do that anymore,” Heinert said. “I need 18 people to give our kids a chance.”
Only 12 senators voted yes on the bill: Sens. Bolin; Gary Cammack, R-Union Center; Jessica Castleberry, R-Rapid City; Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls; Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge; Heinert; Ryan Maher, R-Isabel; Reynold Nesiba, D-Sioux Falls; Michael Rohl, R-Aberdeen; Arthur Rusch, R-Vermillion; V.J. Smith, R-Brookings; and Steinhauer. There were 20 nays, killing the bill.
Sage Fast Dog, educator, founder of a Lakota language immersion school in Mission, and a school board member for the Todd County School District, was present for the Senate debate and said the senators failed to give Native educators the space and opportunity to set Native children up for achievement.
“They have to give us an opportunity to do what we know is best. We’re in the business of getting our kids through school. We have dreams for our kids. And they just start telling us to go back and forth with the school board. There’s not a guarantee that you’re going to get a school board to listen to a group of families that says, ‘This is what we know is going to work,’” Fast Dog told the Capital Journal.