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Bill to create 'Oceti Sakowin' charter schools defeated in South Dakota Senate

A South Dakota measure that would've created schools rooted in values of the Oceti Sakowin, or the Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation, was defeated in Pierre, S.D., on Monday, Feb. 1. Supporters argued culturally relevant schools would reduce systemically high incarceration rates and poverty, while opponents noted anxiety over diverting taxpayers' dollars to charter schools.

The Senate Education committee meets the final week of January, 2021, to approve a bill sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert (foreground), a Mission Democrat, that would create four "Oceti-Sakowin community-based" schools emphasizing Lakota, Dakota, or Nakota language and values. That bill was defeated in the House, 20-14, on Monday, Feb. 1. Christopher Vondracek / FNS
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PIERRE S.D. — A bill that would've established four tribally rooted charter schools in South Dakota failed to receive half of the votes in the state Senate, a body that a year ago unanimously approved the measure.

Senate Bill 68 , to "provide for the creation and funding of Oceti Sakowin community-based schools," referring to the Seven Council Fires of Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota nations historically grounded in the state, was defeated 20-14 on Monday, Feb. 1, as legislators worried about the cost of diverting taxpayers' dollars from traditional public to charter schools.

"It is not fair to the children of this state to start down this charter school project program, where we take money from all those other kids to benefit a few," said President Pro Tempore Lee Schoenbeck , a Republican from Watertown.

Proponents of the bill said the schools would allow state aid to establish schools that "embraces and lifts the indigenous language of the community" and incorporates other values critical to an Oceti Sakowin understanding of life. Supporters had eyed schools in Rapid City and Todd County, with two more in development.

During debate, Sen. Red Dawn Foster , a Pine Ridge Democrat, recalled shifting from a school where she felt "completely foreign" and was teased for her name, while her brothers were bullied for their long hair. But she remembers walking in the first day to a culturally appropriate school and a teacher greeting her by saying "hello beautiful" in Lakota.


"It changed my whole educational experience as well as the trajectory of my whole life," said Foster.

The bill's prime sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert , D-Mission, on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation, said the bill would address the high incarceration and poverty rates among Native citizens that he said South Dakota legislators far from reservations often bemoan. While Native Americans represent just below 10% of the state's population, they account for more than 40% of those jailed.

Heinert said Oceti Sakowin schools would be institutions "where they (children) get that relevance, where they get that feeling that they belong that they belong."

The impassioned call for the schools as a pilot project drew in Sen. V.J. Smith , R-Brookings, who stood to back the measure, recalling last year the unanimous vote supporting the bill "sounded like a drum" in the chamber.

"On that day, I was proud to be a senator in this chamber," said Smith.

But the elation was missing from this year's vote, as a number of senators aired concerns about what they said was the bill's vagueness on funding mechanisms or ties to state education standards. One senator suggested Native students in his district already graduated at a rate just below non-Native students.

"This year, I guess I will be voting no," said Sen. Al Novstrup , R-Aberdeen. "In my town it's (integrating Native children into traditional public schools) working. And I have the concern that this bill will break what's working."

Ninety-two percent of white students in Aberdeen graduated on time last year compared with 86% of Native students, according to the latest school report cards on the South Dakota Department of Education website. Statewide, 90% of white children graduated on-time compared with only 53% of American Indian/Alaska Native children.


Last year, the Oceti Sakowin-model pilot program passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives .

Education curriculum has played a significant role in this year's legislative session at the Statehouse in Pierre. During her State of the State address, Republican Gov. Kristi Noem requested $900,000 from the state Legislature for an update to curriculum, including civics and "state history."

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