Indigenous charter school bill passes Senate in South Dakota

A bill that would allow two Oceti Sakowin-focused charter schools to form passed on a 22-13 vote. A similar measure narrowly failed last year.

Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, speaks at a news conference on Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — A bill to allow two charter schools rooted in Oceti Sakowin culture and teaching passed out of the South Dakota Senate on Wednesday, Feb. 9.

The measure, which failed last year, won nearly two-thirds of the GOP-heavy chamber's vote. The bill's prime sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, told members the schools would "give a chance" to Native children who've been left behind by the public education system.

Listing off a Native American high school graduation rate of 54%, Heinert said, "It's been that way in my community for 60 years. I'm tired. Our kids deserve [this bill]. We shouldn't have to change who we are as Lakota people."

The measure, Senate Bill 139 , has been a perennial issue for Heinert, who noted similar schools are operating in New Mexico and Washington. After suggestions from the Senate education committee, Heinert further amended the bill to cap the number of charter schools at two instead of four.

According to the bill's text, the schools would be nonprofit schools that "provide instruction in accordance with the Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings and Standards."


Oceti Sakowin refers to the seven council fires of the Great Sioux Nation. For the last decade, the Department of Education in South Dakota has recognized Oceti Sakowin Essential Understandings (OSEU).

Under the bill, a nonprofit organization would need to secure approval from a school board. Then, the organization would inherit the per-pupil expenditure to aid those students.

Opponents have largely feared such schools would draw scarce funding away from public schools.

Sen. Jean Hunhoff, R-Yankton, pressed Heinert to acknowledge that one OSEU school already exists on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation.

"They can already do that," said Hunhoff. "It's their choice to do that."

Sen. Red Dawn Foster, D-Pine Ridge, responded to Hunhoff's charge, saying "you can go to the reservation and see that it is happening in small, isolated areas." But, she said, such a school would bring the opportunity to Native students who live away from the reservation.

"Life's hard for us here," said Foster, imploring the chamber to recognize the need for cultural relevance in education. "I went to a reservation school based on our language and our culture ... Being in that type of environment, I started to thrive."

After Senate passage, the bill proceeds to the House. Two years ago, a similar measure passed the Senate, only to die in the House.


Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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