By Toya Stewart Downey, July 1, 2015
American Indian students and schools, including the Mille Lacs Band, will get a much-needed boost in education funding thanks to the historic investment by state lawmakers.
The state’s new $17 billion education funding bill includes $18 million in new funding for American Indian students and tribal schools overseen by the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Education. The additional funding will be used for programs to help improve student achievement and will increase per-pupil funding at tribal schools during the next two years.
“This is a long time coming with Educational Services to American Indian students in the state on a public, charter and tribal school level,” said the Band’s Education Commissioner, Suzanne Wise.
“Every area will see some sort of increase,” she said. “The exact numbers haven’t been released yet but the Band’s Nay Ah Shing Schools will see an increase in over $1 million over the two-year cycle compared to the existing budget.”
Suzanne called the additional funding historic and said it will help with recruitment and retention of teachers at the Band schools. The Band has long invested in education through the revenue generated by the casinos, she said.
The new funding, which was agreed upon in June during a special session, is expected to impact an estimated 20,000 American Indian students across Minnesota.
The achievement gap has continued to grow between white students and Indian students for the past decade or longer, and the graduation rate for the state’s Indian students has been among the lowest in the nation. Last year only about half of Indian students graduated on time.
Suzanne said the funding will be statewide and will assist any public or charter school that has more than 10 students who identify as American Indians. It’s based on a per-pupil formula.
“What we are all hoping for is an increase in the skills necessary to be successful and for students to make academic progress. Higher graduation rates are always the goal,” Suzanne added.
Suzanne, who serves on the Board of Directors for the Minnesota Indian Education Association and on the Tribal Nations Education Committee, said both organizations were crucial in providing testimony about why the additional funding was needed.
Along with Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin and other elected officials and Indian educators, Suzanne served on a statewide group that focused on more education funding. Both Melanie and Suzanne were able to share details about struggles American Indian students face in public schools.
“Many of our American Indian students deal with racism and white privilege in our state’s public school systems,” said Suzanne. “These factors and others directly affect our students’ ability to succeed.”
Brenda Cassellius, Education Commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), who also met with the Band’s leaders and other advocates in Indian education, said the additional funding was “a win” for American Indian students.
Former Band Commissioner of Education Dennis Olson, who is now the state director of American Indian Education for MDE, said the new funds will put Minnesota near the top of states when it comes to spending to help Indian students.
Dennis said that while the state has had policies in place specifically designed to help Indian students, they were often unfunded mandates. The new funding will help train staff to work with Indian students, develop academic supports and fund initiatives that will better connect students and their families to school.
He added that he is hopeful that eventually Minnesota will be a leader in providing resources for Indian students.
The lack of funding in Indian education funding in the initial education budget was one of the reasons Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton vetoed it, saying it didn’t invest enough money in the education priorities he deemed most important.
Outside of the funding, another big win for the Band was its waiver approval by the Bureau of Indian Education to bring Pine Grove School under the umbrella of Nay Ah Shing Schools.
“We want to ensure that all of our schools offer the latest technology, curriculum, extra-curricular activities, and Ojibwe language and cultural programming,” Suzanne said.
The Band has also assisted Minisinaakwaang Leadership Academy to implement additional phases in its existing plans to advance its students.