Equal Educational Opportunity for Native American Students in Montana Public Schools

Chapter 2

State and Federal Government Perspectives

Although several equal education initiatives have been authored, reviewed, and evaluated by the Montana State Legislature, the Office of Public Instruction, the Board of Public Education, and others, these entities have played limited roles in ensuring equal education for Native American students in the public school system. However, many educators, school board trustees, students, parents, and citizens interested in high-quality, equal education continue to look to the state government for leadership and commitment to Indian education issues.

The Educational Equity Center, a federally funded private organization, provides guidance and technical assistance on education policies for school districts. At the federal level, the Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education, provides information, conducts reviews, prepares evaluations, and enforces orders for corrective action under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and related statutes. The Office for Civil Rights and other federal agencies could be valuable resources to help ensure equal education for Indian children in Montana public schools. However, many schools and school districts do not fully utilize the services they provide and some are even unaware of their existence. Additionally, many parents and students are unaware of these agencies and the services they perform (see later discussion in this chapter).

There are those who think that focusing on any one educational indicator in isolation provides a limited picture of student achievements in the public school system; however, it is necessary to look at specific pieces of the overall system to evaluate its success. Because of the large number of school districts across the state, this report will highlight statewide statistics while focusing on schools and school districts in major cities, including Billings, Great Falls, Helena, and Missoula, as well as schools on or adjacent to the seven Indian reservations in the state.

Office of Public Instruction

The Office of Public Instruction, responsible for the education of children enrolled in Montana’s K–12 public schools, is directed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Nancy Keenan, elected by the citizens of the state. Montana’s public school system, consisting of approximately 452 locally controlled school districts, has been responsible for educating an average of more than 163,000 students each school year.[1] School-age children accounted for almost 19 percent of the state’s population of 870,281 people in 1995.[2]

The Office of Public Instruction (OPI) boasts of excellent public schools, with good teachers and high-achieving students. Those successes are achieved, according to OPI, through its commitment to quality education and the dedication and talents of teachers. OPI believes that Montana’s students receive a high-quality education through an active partnership with parents and community members. The Office of Public Instruction also acknowledges that if Montana schools are to remain among the best, community dialogue on how best to provide a quality education for all students will need to continue, and key to that success will be information that is accurate and relevant. Superintendent Keenan stated, “The mission of the Office of Public Instruction is to provide the necessary state and federal resources to ensure all of Montana’s children a quality education regardless of where they live or their circumstance in life.”[3]

Linda Peterson, division administrator of the Academic and Professional Services Division, Office of Public Instruction, addressed the Montana Advisory Committee at its April 1997 fact-finding meeting in Missoula on behalf of Superintendent Keenan. Ms. Peterson said, “The superintendent and staff of the Office of Public Instruction are committed to working hard to improve the education for all children in Montana.”[4] Ms. Peterson said that in Montana, most parents, community members, business people, students, and others are very interested in the education system, and they want it to work well. They want teachers and administrators to be highly qualified and competent. She added, “The work ought to ensure that the education of children meets the needs of their world and their future. Their educational experiences must include challenging content which is connected intimately with a student’s real life and a real community, and these experiences must be culturally relevant.”[5] Ms. Peterson said Superintendent Keenan understands the cultural issues facing Indian youth, and “as a means to guarantee that the Indian children and our youth receive a good education with visible links to their cultural heritage, [the superintendent] strongly supports the Montana constitutional commitment to [education as stated in] Article X.”[6] Article X’s commitment is to establish an education system that will promote the full potential of every student and to ensure equal educational opportunity.

To support her earlier statement that most Montanans care about Indian education, Ms. Peterson provided excerpts from a survey conducted by a school district (with a 97 percent Indian population) that participated in collaboration meetings held across the state in 1990 and again in 1995.[7] Parents, other community members, tribal government representatives, school personnel, and high school students responded to the question, “As the 21st century nears, what do you believe should be the emphasis in Montana Indian education for K–12 schools?” The top six answers were:

  1. Indian students attain at least a 90 percent graduation rate.

  2. Indian students become competent in English, math, science, history, and geography as demonstrated by competency assessment tests.

  3. Seventy-five percent of Indian students who graduate go on to postsecondary training (college or vocational training).

  4. Indian graduates are literate and able to compete in a global economy.

  5. The schools are drug- and alcohol-free.

  6. Culturally relevant material is available in all Montana schools.[8]

According to Ms. Peterson, the Office of Public Instruction supported the above-listed goals for Indian education. Challenges faced by the Office of Public Instruction, school districts, and schools include a high dropout rate, lack of parental involvement, developing challenging curricula with appropriate assessment, and finding teacher education and professional development activities that improve teachers’ ability to educate Native American students.[9]

In support of the six goals and to help locally controlled schools and school districts achieve goals specific to Indian education, OPI has allocated state funds to maintain an Indian education specialist. The Indian education specialist’s role is to produce and institute professional development training and activities for teachers.[10] Although vacant since spring 1996, the position was filled in 1999.

Lynn Hinch, bilingual specialist for the Office of Public Instruction, also spoke on behalf of Superintendent Keenan at the Montana Advisory Committee’s December 1996 fact-finding meeting in Billings. Activities carried out specific to Indian education over the past 20 years, Ms. Hinch said, included a series of documents, curriculum materials, and teaching materials that were widely distributed in the state.[11] She said feedback “from the field” has indicated that they have been very useful, and the materials are always in demand, requiring multiple reproductions.[12] Over the past five or six years, Ms. Hinch said, one of the major initiatives carried out by the Indian education specialist has been a training institute developed primarily for non-Indian teachers of Indian students.[13] Ms. Hinch said the institutes have been very successful, and teachers in previous institutes produced some of the documents currently in use.[14] Ms. Hinch told the Advisory Committee, “There isn’t any federal money coming through the Office of Public Instruction dedicated to Indian education . . . [although] the Office of Public Instruction had received that [Title IV] money for 10 to 12 years.”[15] She said that in 1995, some of the federal funds OPI received were used for a budget for the Indian education specialist, but that money was eliminated in 1996.[16] She said one of the initiatives in the superintendent of public instruction’s budget for the 1997 Legislature was increased funding for the Indian education specialist that hopefully would allow continuance of the position.[17] Ms. Hinch told the Advisory Committee that the “superintendent . . . is very committed to Indian education in Montana” and hopes that in January 1997 OPI will return to some of the activities previously carried out through the Indian education position.[18]

According to Ms. Peterson, over the past two years, the Office of Public Instruction has worked hard at doing a better job of communicating and coordinating with locally controlled school districts and their schools to make their federal and state programs more effective.[19] An important point made by Ms. Peterson was that “all people have the right to be visible. Each child ought to be able to see himself or herself in the curriculum, in the materials used, in the positive interactions within that school, on the playground, and with adults and other children.”[20]

Data collection is also an important aspect of the myriad of duties the Office of Public Instruction performs for the state, school districts, and schools. Each year OPI produces a document that is based on statewide school enrollment and includes racial and ethnic origin totals by grade. OPI also maintains data on teachers and other school personnel, by gender and racial background.

Table 2.1 shows public school student enrollment statewide for the school years 1995–96 (165,547), 1996–97 (164,627), 1997–98 (162,335), and 1998–99 (159,988). Table 2.1 also shows that overall school enrollment declined by 920 students at the beginning of the 1996–97 school year, 2,292 students at the beginning of the 1997–98 school year, and 2,347 students at the beginning of the 1998–99 school year.


Public School Student Enrollment Statewide






Native American






























Enrollment decline





Native American enrollment





Source: Office of Public Instruction, “Montana Public School Enrollment Data” reports, fall 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98, and 1998-99.

After reviewing the enrollment decline of 2,292 students from the 1996–97 to 1997–98 school year, the Montana School Boards Association, in its April 1998 newsletter, reported that the most significant declines occurred in eight Montana counties. These counties (Flathead, Hill, Lake, Lincoln, Missoula, Ravalli, Rosebud, and Yellowstone) accounted for half the enrollment decrease.[21] The Montana Advisory Committee found that several school districts with high Native American student populations were located in the counties accounting for high enrollment decline. The following list shows 1997–98 data for six of the eight counties with high enrollment declines, which include school districts with large Indian student populations:[22]

The information provided by the Montana School Boards Association suggests that schools and school districts with large numbers of Native American students may be experiencing high dropout rates.

The Office of Public Instruction also maintains data on how well students are achieving. Accredited schools are required under Rule 10.56.101, Administrative Rules of Montana (ARM), to report norm-referenced test scores for students in grades four, eight, and 11 in reading, language arts, math, science, and social studies.[23] Although test scores of Native American students were not mentioned specifically, OPI’s 1994–95 report, with all schools participating, concluded that “with few exceptions, Montana students’ average scores in grades four, eight, and 11 are well above the national average, which is consistent with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) state-by-state test results and with American College Testing program (ACT) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) College Board scores showing Montana students scoring significantly above national averages.”[24] Students cumulatively received the seventh highest score nationwide in reading (1994).[25] Each year, approximately 21 percent of Montana seniors take the SAT and 58 percent take the ACT. For the 1995–96 school year, Montana seniors scored above the national average on both exams.[26]

The Office of Public Instruction is concerned with the dropout rates of Native American students and maintains data in that area. OPI’s definition of a dropout is as follows:

An individual who: (1) was enrolled in school on the date of the previous year October enrollment count or any time after that date during the previous school year; and (2) was not enrolled on the date of current school year October enrollment count or was not enrolled at the beginning of the previous school year but was expected to enroll and did not enroll during the year (“no shows”); and (3) has not graduated from high school or completed a state- or district-approved high school educational program; and (4) has not transferred to another school, been temporarily absent due to a school-recognized illness, suspension, or death.[27]

Ms. Hinch reported 1994–95 dropout figures, taken from the OPI document, 1994–95 Montana Dropout Information, which showed that Native American students drop out of high school at a rate of 10.4 percent, and that they are 3.6 times more likely to drop out than white students. In the seventh and eighth grades, Indian students were dropping out at a rate of 1.5 percent, and were five times more likely to drop out than white students in the same grades. Ms. Hinch said overall Native American students are at higher risk for dropping out of school and are most likely to drop out in the ninth grade.[28]

The Advisory Committee asked Ms. Hinch if the state knows the true dropout rate. She responded, “This complete [1994–95 Montana Dropout Information] document addresses how difficult it is to really get a handle on dropout rates, and I don’t know the answer to that.”[29] Ms. Hinch acknowledged that this was the first time “actually that OPI has tried to get a handle on the dropout rates.”[30] She also said OPI plans to look at those numbers in subsequent years because there are many obstacles to getting accurate dropout rates.[31] She said some of the questions OPI has grappled with include why Native American students are most likely to drop out in ninth grade and how to get a more accurate count of ninth graders who still live in the district but are not in school regularly.[32]

OPI’s 1996–97 Statewide Dropout Report includes information from 98 percent of Montana’s high schools. Of those districts with high Native American enrollment, 30 percent did not provide dropout reports. Specifically, six of the 14 high schools and 24 of the 55 schools that had seventh- and eighth-grade enrollment did not report dropout figures to OPI. From data it did receive, OPI found the Native American dropout rate to be about 3.5 times higher than the statewide rate. Table 2.3 shows that Indian students realized a dropout rate of 19.4 percent during the 1996–97 school year, compared with 8.5 percent for all other students (white, black, Asian, and Hispanic). Native American dropout rates jumped from 10.4 percent to 19.4 percent within three school years (1994–95 through 1996–97).

As table 2.1 illustrates, Native American students represented 9.8 percent of the total school population for 1995–96, 9.9 percent for 1996–97, 10 percent for 1997–98, and 10.2 percent for the 1998–99 school year.

Although table 2.1 shows that Native American student enrollment increased over the past four school years, enrollment data by grade painted quite a different picture. Reviewing the secondary level only (9–12 grades), and analyzing Native American students who entered the ninth grade during the 1995–96 school year and then looking at the number of students who entered the 10th grade during the 1996–97 school year, and so on, table 2.2, derived from OPI fall enrollment reports, shows that Native American enrollment actually declined during those same years. As an example, the 1995 fall enrollment data recorded 683 Native American males enrolled in the ninth grade; however, only 492 males enrolled in the 10th grade for the 1996–97 school year. The following school year, 1997–98, only 445 Native American males enrolled in the 11th grade, and only 374 reported for their senior year (school year 1998–99). Office of Public Instruction fall enrollment reports for female Native American students for those same years showed a similar decline. These data validate what many parents, students, and educators already knew—Native Americans are dropping out of school at high rates.[33]


Native American Student Enrollment in Secondary Level Public Schools by Grade and Sex

      October 1995


       October 1996


      October 1997

  October 1998

































































 Source: Montana Office of Public Instruction, Race/Ethnic Origin Totals by GradeOctober 1995, 1996; 1997, 1998, tables as reported in Montana Public School Enrollment Data Reports—fall 1995–96, fall 1996–97, fall 1997–98, and fall 1998–99.


Student Dropout Rates in Montana Public Schools

7th and 8th grade students

School year

Native American























High school students (9–12)





School year

Native American























Source: Denise Juneau, Indian education specialist, Office of Public Instruction, submitted to Malee V. Craft, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, on Mar. 21, 2000.

Ms. Hinch said the Office of Public Instruction would ask more specific questions in the future as it collects data from school districts. Current problems with data collection include (1) achievement test scores that are difficult to interpret because there is no continuity in how school districts report those scores, and (2) some districts including special education students in their figures, while others exclude limited-English-proficient students.[34]

The Office of Public Instruction does not administer either the Johnson-O’Malley or Title IX Indian Education programs, which are funded with federal dollars. The federal government reimburses schools for the cost of educating Indian children.[35] She said school districts use those dollars in different ways, including for tutoring, parent involvement activities, and cultural activities.[36] The local school districts are not accountable to the Office of Public Instruction and there is no central agency to oversee implementation of their programs, Ms. Hinch said.[37]

Superintendent Keenan said, “Montana schools are constantly looking for ways to improve student learning; we are aggressively strengthening our academic standards and seeking to provide our teachers with the tools and training necessary to meet the challenges of the next century.”[38] However, Ms. Peterson acknowledged, “It is a fact that there is no teeth in virtually everything the Office of Public Instruction is all about.” Local control is the norm, with decisions typically coming from school boards.[39] She said, “There is nothing in place to mandate the language in the state constitution, and a remedy would have to come through the court system.”[40] However, OPI has put in place two improvements.

According to Ms. Peterson, the first improvement is Project Excellence, which was established to conduct standards reviews. Through Project Excellence, OPI has begun to develop clearer course content standards and performance standards. School districts and Indian parents have input in determining course content and developing alternative ways to measure knowledge. Second, Adequate Yearly Progress was developed to review from year to year how a school is doing in terms of meeting a certain level of achievement and ensuring that all students graduate.[41] For those schools that do not measure up according to the assessments, OPI would consult with the school to identify problems and recommend strategies for improvement.[42]

Board of Public Education

The Board of Public Education was established to carry out its constitutional and statutory responsibility to exercise general supervision over the public school system. The Board of Public Education works in cooperation with the Office of Public Instruction. Board members are appointed by the governor and serve seven-year terms. Responsibilities of the board are to make policy and establish rules for the accreditation of public schools and the accreditation of teacher education programs; handle certification of teachers and school administrators; monitor educational issues and legislative activities; and communicate with communities to improve information sharing.[43]

For the 1996–97 school year, the Board of Public Education adopted a plan to develop a long-term strategy to increase the number of teachers and administrators fluent in Native American languages.[44] Leading up to that plan, in 1996, the Board of Public Education adopted a policy to institute a “Class 7” teaching certificate, which makes it easier for individuals of Native American background to teach in the public schools. Requirements under the Class 7 certificate include a stipulation that teachers have authorization from their respective tribes before teaching their language and culture. Dr. Wayne Buchanan, executive secretary for the Board of Public Education, said this new class of certification was a “major step forward” and would allow “tribal elders and folks that perhaps do not have the full amount of higher education and the other requirements that are necessary to receive a teaching certificate in the state to teach in the public schools and be fully accredited certified teachers under our rules.”[45]

Dr. Buchanan referred to Senate Joint Resolution No. 11, which authorized the Committee on Indian Affairs to study how the state is implementing its constitutional language to carry out the educational goals of Native Americans and to preserve their cultural integrity.[46] Anticipating long-awaited change, he said, “It appears that finally after 20 years, a law will be established to implement the constitutional language.”[47] Dr. Buchanan explained that the constitutional language was not self-executing and had not been adhered to. “It has not been taken seriously. As a matter of fact, one of the people from the legislative council working on this said it was just philosophical language and that it really wasn’t anything that needed to be followed very closely,” he said.[48] Dr. Buchanan further said the Board of Public Education thinks otherwise, and in a separate move, has drafted language to implement the constitutional language. The language will be—

a separate chapter in the Montana Codes Annotated, and it will set forth the responsibility for any educational agents, or any educational agency, to [acknowledge and recognize the importance of] the Board of Public Education, the superintendent of public instruction, the county superintendents of schools, local school boards, and special task forces assigned to deliberate on educational issues, and any other agency of government that makes rules pertaining to the operation of the schools, teaching students, and transportation.[49]

The language has a set of definitions to accompany it and will require that any educational agency as defined take into consideration how its rules and regulations will affect the preservation of the distinct and unique cultural heritage of Native Americans. Dr. Buchanan said he hoped the legislation would pass during the 1997 Legislative Session, and then there would be a law on the books that finally implements the constitutional language.[50] The Board of Public Education was working with legislators to put the recommendation in bill form and to put it through the political process in preparation for the biennial session of the Montana State Legislature that convened in January 1997.[51] He further stated, “Whether it will be adopted or not, I couldn’t say. I think it has a good chance at being adopted, however. The Legislature, most of the time, is good at adopting resolutions that are non-binding on anyone, but this would be a different approach.”[52] (The proposed legislation failed passage during the 1997 Legislative Session.)

Dr. Buchanan said he thought one of the reasons the board established a Class 7 certificate was to ensure that those individuals in that class were treated the same as those in other school districts who were Class 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 certificate holders.[53] He said the board already had an emergency authorization in place, and tribal members who wanted to teach in the schools taught under that authorization.[54] He further said Class 7 certification gives individuals the same status as other certified teachers, and consequently they fall under the same collective bargaining agreements.[55] He said:

The other significance of the Class 7 is that it puts into the hands of the various tribes who is certified to teach their language and culture. [Before] the Class 7 certification, a teacher had to be certified before they could teach the Crow language and the teacher might only have had a very limited knowledge of the Crow language, but that individual could have been certified by the state to teach Crow in the public schools. Because of that, the board felt it was important to give that responsibility of certification to the tribes rather than the university system, the superintendents, or anyone else.[56]

Joyce Silverthorne, vice chair of the Montana Board of Public Education, explained the Class 7 certification for teaching Native American languages. The Class 7 certification, which is unique to Montana, was established after consultation with the state’s seven reservations and the Little Shell Tribe.[57] This Class 7 certification recognizes the autonomy of the tribes as the only groups that can determine who is eligible and capable of teaching a Native language.[58] The reservations in the state represent 11 indigenous languages, and so far three tribes have developed plans for recommending a language teacher. The other four tribes are still developing those plans, and they will be coming forward.[59]

Montana has more than 300 school districts, in which 21 Native American language classes are taught. Of the 21 teachers conducting these classes, eight of them became Class 7 certified teachers within the first year the certification was offered.[60] The certification is controversial, partly because it does not require a four-year college degree. Ms. Silverthorne compared the controversy to a “backlash,” and because it is new, she said, “it is a threat in some ways to people who have gone through the process of teacher training. They can’t understand what is happening.”[61] She explained that most Indian languages are in a state of decline with the youngest speakers over 35 years old, and in some tribes, the only remaining speakers are older than 50. “The severity of that age decline prevents us from having people coming forward into a four-year degree program,” she said.[62]

Regarding the relationship between the Board of Public Education and school districts, Dr. Buchanan said general supervision of schools is vested in the Board of Public Education, but local school districts have control over their individual schools.[63] The Board of Public Education encounters the problem of school districts ignoring board policies, and it is trying to initiate change at the state level. However, the board has limited authority. He suggested that if a law could be enacted to implement the constitutional language to require that local school districts take into consideration the language in adopting rules, regulations, and laws, then Indian education would serve students better.[64]

Dr. Buchanan informed the Montana Advisory Committee that the Board of Public Education requires continuing education for teachers.[65] But he said, where the board may “require” specific continuing education courses, enactment would fall back under the law, where the law says that it is “permissive.”[66] To clarify in the case of Indian studies, Dr. Buchanan said, “When [the State Legislature] makes it permissive, then we can’t come back and make it mandatory. So that has been the general rule. . . , we don’t know where our authority lies at this point, to tell you the truth.”[67]

Joyce Silverthorne alleged that state legislators in Montana have been unsupportive of Native American issues. Of three bills dealing with Native American issues submitted to the Legislature, none passed. She said, “It is a long struggle” and “Indian education in this state is in dire circumstances.”[68] Ms. Silverthorne said change is slow and until there are more Indian people in the State Legislature, on school boards, and serving as teachers, principals, and superintendents, her work must continue.[69]

What needs to be done to implement the language in the state constitution regarding equal education for Indian students? First, several proposals have been developed, proposed, and presented and Ms. Silverthorne noted, “Until there is a court case that says you must do it this way, we’re kind of at an impasse.”[70]

Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education

The Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education is responsible for tracking students enrolled in institutions of higher education across the state. In 1989, with the assistance of a Ford Foundation grant, the office began the Tracks Project to address the high dropout rate of Indian students from public schools. One outcome of the Tracks Project was the creation of the American Indian Minority Achievement Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.[71] The project also presented a long-term demographic view of how Native American students are doing within the university system.[72]

Ellen Swaney, director of the American Indian Minority Achievement Office, explained that all campuses in the university system have action plans to increase the number of minority students and faculty.[73] The American Indian Minority Achievement Office provides diversity training throughout the system by request for any department or organization, and works closely as a liaison with legislative committees, Indian education organizations, as well as other organizations, such as the Montana Association of Student Financial Aid Officers.[74] Fee waivers are available through the university system for Indian students who (1) have financial need, (2) are able to document they have one-quarter Indian blood, and (3) can prove residency in the state.[75]

Within the Montana university system (tribal colleges and private colleges), approximately 8.57 percent of the student population is Native American. Without considering private and tribal colleges, about 2.97 percent of students in the Montana university system are Native American.[76] Ms. Swaney said that as an Indian educator, “We need to recruit three to four times the number of [Indian] students that we have in higher education right now.”[77] She said that five years ago the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education and the American Indian Minority Achievement Office in their report, A Plan for American Indian Education: Recommended Goals, made several recommendations to the Board of Regents, the Board of Public Education, the Office of Public Instruction, local school boards, and the Indian community.[78]

Committee on Indian Affairs

The Committee on Indian Affairs, established by the State Legislature for Native Americans to communicate their needs and concerns, was asked in 1995 by state legislators to examine whether Montana met its constitutional educational obligations to Native Americans.[79] To accomplish this goal, the Committee on Indian Affairs conducted a random survey of public schools and their respective school districts. The Office of Public Instruction assisted with the development of the survey.[80]

Surveys sent to schools addressed such areas as Indian studies courses, textbooks, resources, and special activities.[81] Questions to school districts covered such areas as pupil instruction-related (PIR) days, teacher recruitment, use of noncertified personnel, assessment of language needs, and adherence to the Indian Studies Law.[82] The purpose of the school district survey was to find out what schools and districts were doing in the area of Indian studies for students and teachers.[83]

In 1995, there were approximately 358 public school districts encompassing 165,547 students.[84] The school district survey was sent to 153 school districts across the state, with a response rate of 79 percent, or 121 surveys returned. The school survey was sent to 363 of the state’s 886 public schools. Of the 363 surveys sent, 283 were returned, for a response rate of 77 percent.[85] School districts were asked if certified personnel in their school districts were required to take instruction in American Indian studies to be employed. Of the 119 districts that responded to the question, only 7 percent (or eight school districts) answered “yes.”[86] For many years, members of the Indian education community have encouraged school districts to devote at least one pupil instruction-related day to Indian studies or Indian cultural awareness. Of the 120 school districts that responded to the question, only 22 percent (or 26 school districts) answered “yes.”[87] Overwhelmingly, local trustees in Montana have opted not to implement the Indian Studies Law in their school districts.[88]

Schools were also asked if they offer courses in American Indian studies at any grade level. Of the 278 schools that responded to the question, 22 percent (61 schools) replied “yes.”[89] Schools were asked if they use any of the education materials developed as a result of the Indian Studies Law; a little more than half (55 percent) of the schools indicated that they knew of these materials. However, only about one-quarter (71 schools) actually used the materials.[90] The school survey asked if curriculum materials related to Indian studies would be used if the materials were available. The overwhelming response was “yes.” Almost three-fourths of the schools surveyed, however, indicated that American Indian Law-related education materials developed by the Office of Public Instruction were not being used, and many schools were unaware that the materials were available.[91]

Representative Joan Hurdle, Montana State Legislature, said schools also offer special activities or programs that highlight Indian history and culture.[92] She said Indian students make up about 10 percent of the K–12 public school population in Montana, and Indian teachers account for less than 3 percent of teachers.[93]

In addition to the school surveys, the Committee on Indian Affairs held statewide hearings to receive testimony from parents, students, and educators. Representative Hurdle said the committee was overwhelmed with an array of concerns that included irrelevant curricula, high Indian student dropout rates, discriminatory practices, and insensitive teachers and administrators.[94] “As a committee member, it certainly became apparent to me that in our public schools in Montana, we are not meeting our constitutional obligations. We are not doing what we agreed to do in our constitution,” she said.[95] Montana has a “wonderful” education system as far as the quality of teaching staff is concerned, Representative Hurdle said, but more Indian teachers are needed.[96] She explained that many teachers’ efforts are actually individual efforts, not programs endorsed by the schools. She also said the Committee on Indian Affairs survey showed that teachers in some school districts are doing a good job, but school districts in general are not requiring that curricula include Indian education, and the state is lacking in the same manner.[97]

Office of Indian Affairs

The Office of Indian Affairs was established by the Montana State Legislature in 1951 to “place our Indian citizens in a position to take their rightful place in our society and assume their rights, duties, and privileges of full citizenship,” and to address problems faced by Indians who reside in Montana.[98] The office, represented by the coordinator, communicates opinions and needs of Indian people within the state to agencies of responsibility, assists in organizing their efforts, and acts as a representative for organized bodies of Indian people, whether on or off the reservation.[99]

Wyman J. McDonald, former coordinator of the Office of Indian Affairs, told the Montana Advisory Committee that “Indian people are attempting to integrate the best of the old: beauty, strength, integrity, and the uniqueness of traditional Indian cultures, with the best of the new and be able to integrate the two cultures together to make a better world for our people.”[100] In reflecting on his experience with public education in the state, he explained that more than 50 years ago, when he was in the fourth or fifth grade, he considered dropping out of school, and stated that “the data and information on dropouts in the elementary grades shared by others during the fact-finding meeting, makes it appear that not much has changed.”[101]

Sharing his personal point of view, Mr. McDonald said people need to understand that non-Indians are not solely to blame for the plight of Native American students. “Our tribal leadership has certainly, in many cases, been just as remiss as all of the other institutions,” he said.[102]

Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education

David Dunbar, chief regional attorney, Office for Civil Rights (OCR), U.S. Department of Education, Denver Office, said his office enforces laws that tackle problems in education. These laws include Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.[103] The Office for Civil Rights enforces Title VI in regard to the delivery of language services in educational institutions.[104] Public schools have an obligation to educate students who have problems in English and are required to bring them up to a level where they can receive an equal educational opportunity and overcome language difficulties.[105] Mr. Dunbar referred to testimony of the superintendent of the Billings School District who indicated that the district’s limited-English-proficiency program served only 31 students, even though the school district is the largest in the state. He said, “We have found that there is a problem in every school district that we have dealt with. They are not adequately serving students with language problems.”[106] He said many school districts report low numbers of students they are serving because they do not have an adequate identification system.[107] Mr. Dunbar said, “Our office has put forth a policy that essentially guides school districts in implementing a plan for language services. We have put a number of school districts under federal monitoring to ensure that they do what they are supposed to do.”[108]

Another aspect of the language issue is mislabeling Indian children and placing them in special education classes. Mr. Dunbar said when OCR addresses this issue, it generally finds that suitable procedures are not in place. And when that is the case, OCR requires changes, regardless of whether the placements were appropriate.[109]

Mr. Dunbar also addressed the issue of mascots, and said the Office for Civil Rights does not allow school districts to maintain a “racially hostile environment.” He said:

If there are caricatures of Indians who are running around like cartoons—this problem has surfaced in other parts of the country—we have stepped in and said this is creating a racially hostile environment for the Indian students; it is interfering with their ability to learn and we want you to change what you are doing. We have the authority to do that, and our authority is predicated on the fact that all school districts receive federal monies. If they don’t do what we require, we are going to cut that money off.[110]

Questioned about his perception of unequal disciplinary actions across the state, Mr. Dunbar said although he could not respond to any specifics with regard to Montana, his experience with other schools and other states confirms that it occurs whenever there is a large minority population. Indian students are referred for discipline for different reasons than white students are.[111] He said OCR is called in when it receives complaints where the students and parents perceive inequitable treatment.[112] He told the Advisory Committee:

So even though the school district has a record saying this student was referred for this reason, oftentimes we see that white children are not referred for the same reasons, so that is a problem. We can also step in and help in that area. The school districts have the obligation as public school systems [to treat all children fairly] and they need to follow through with that obligation.[113]

Although Montana’s Constitution indicates a strong commitment to Indian education, the state’s actions have not reflected that commitment, Mr. Dunbar said. He noted that OCR can only go into a school district when requested or if it perceives a problem that is so acute that immediate attention is required. Complaints that have sufficient factual basis will be addressed and resolved, and the school district will be monitored to ensure that the pattern does not reappear, he said.[114]

Mr. Dunbar responded to a question about what information is shared with parents, such as grievance policies, and what types of complaint resources are available to them. He said:

Many rural school districts do not comply with the regulations that we enforce which require that they have in place an internal grievance process to internally deal with these matters, as well as to notify students, staff and teachers that the Office for Civil Rights is there and what our statutory authorities are.[115]

The Office for Civil Rights often finds that school districts do not pay attention to what is contained in federal funding compliance agreements as long as they get the federal dollars. He added, “Oftentimes when we send people out in the field to do presentations, that’s the first contact parents have that we even exist. We are deluged with complaints after that, because they say, ‘Now we know you are there and we have problems and we want them corrected.’ ”[116]

Mr. Dunbar was asked whether the dearth of Native American school board members, superintendents, administrators, teachers, and counselors would fall under the jurisdiction of Title VI. He responded, “[OCR] would have jurisdiction over that matter because Title VI regulations specifically prohibit discrimination on the selection of board members, advisory committees, and the like.”[117] However, OCR’s jurisdiction under Title VI gets more complicated because school boards are usually elected and it may be prohibitive in terms of OCR stepping in to say that discrimination has occurred.[118] He said, “Our primary purpose is to ensure that students receive services and if we perceive that the administration of the school is being conducted in a way that has a negative impact on that, we will assert jurisdiction.”[119]

Educational Equity Center

Gerald L. “Jerry” Brown, former director of the Educational Equity Center, also known as the Desegregation Assistance Center, Metropolitan State College in Denver, appeared before the Montana Advisory Committee.[120] Mr. Brown said his office helps school districts overcome desegregation problems through technical assistance in the preparation, adoption, and implementation of desegregation plans. Desegregation centers were established because Congress recognized that school districts would need assistance in desegregating their programs, and “initially in the South that was racial desegregation, but it also applied to all other kinds of segregation, including not providing math and science for girls in high school or preparing them for non-traditional careers, as well as language minority students and racially motivated discrimination of any kind in schools.”[121] The Educational Equity Center gets involved after the Office for Civil Rights cites school districts or the school districts themselves recognize that they have a problem and contact the center for assistance with developing plans to remove barriers to educational equity.[122] He said the Region VIII OCR “has been very active for the past five years and has cited a lot of school districts in the eight-state region.”[123] Mr. Brown explained that the center’s second objective is to provide technical assistance and advice in handling problems such as sexual harassment, racial harassment, and school walkouts.[124] The Educational Equity Center can do training on nondiscriminatory practices on the basis of race, gender, and national origin. The center’s third objective is to provide training to educators, parents, and other community members to improve their ability to deal effectively with school desegregation. And finally, its fourth objective is to help schools disseminate information on effective methods to combat desegregation problems.[125]

Mr. Brown also discussed discrimination in Montana from a personal perspective and said the discrimination he experienced in 1946 also affected his son in 1980. “It was just shocking to me to find that he was finding the same thing that I found in 1946.”[126] Mr. Brown said when he went to the school to discuss his son’s low grades in science, the teacher said, “Well, Mr. Brown, you know that Indian children don’t do well in science.”[127] Aware that each child is entitled to equal education under the law, he responded, “I think the schools have to adopt a policy of having the highest expectations for all students, as well as their teachers.”[128] Mr. Brown concluded, “A lot of the problem is with the inadequate preparation of teachers, and a lot of the effort has to be directed in terms of preparing teachers to work with students of diverse backgrounds.”[129]

[1] Based on 1995–99 figures. Montana Office of Public Instruction, Montana Public School Enrollment Data reports. School enrollment data for fall 1995–96: 165,547; 1996–97: 164,627; 1997–98: 162,335; and 1998–99: 159,988.

[2] Office of Public Instruction, Facts about Montana Education, July 1996.

[3] Office of Public Instruction, Web site <www.metnet.state.mt.us>, Mar. 24, 2000.

[4] Linda Peterson, statement before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Missoula, MT, Apr. 24, 1997, transcript, p. 297 (hereafter cited as Transcript 2). Superintendent Keenan was unable to attend due to a prior commitment.

[5] Ibid., p. 297.

[6] Ibid., pp. 297–98.

[7] The school district was not identified. Several school districts participated in collaboration meetings as part of two statewide conferences. The first conference was held in 1990 and sponsored by the Montana Advisory Council for Indian Education (MACIE) under the direction of the former OPI Indian education specialist, Bob Parsley. The second conference was held in 1995 and convened by Indian leaders from across the state and cosponsored by MACIE and the Montana Indian Education Association (MIEA). The conferences were titled “Montana Forum for Effective Education of American Indian Students.”

[8] Linda Peterson, Transcript 2, p. 300.

[9] Ibid., p. 301.

[10] Ibid. OPI foresees the role of the Indian education specialist (one of OPI’s goals for improving Indian education) as a team player, integrally related to the agency as a whole, rather than a single entity only taking care of certain issues; also the Indian education specialist would be a part of a much larger team with the ability to help the office as it moves forward in trying to improve teaching and learning for all children. Ibid., p. 304. OPI sponsored (l986–96) an annual training institute to instruct teachers on Native American culture and suggested practices to use in working with Indian children. A document is developed from each institute and is available to teachers. It includes lesson plans and units of study. Throughout the school year, other documents on effective curricula are produced and made available to teachers. About 12 documents are available, including Understanding Powwows and Evaluating Learning Materials for Bias and Accuracy. Ibid., pp. 301–02.

[11] Lynn Hinch, statement before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, fact-finding meeting, Billings, MT, Dec. 10, 1996, transcript, p. 53 (hereafter cited as Transcript 1). These materials were developed by the former Indian education specialist, Bob Parsley. Ibid.

[12] Ibid., pp. 53–54.

[13] Ibid. The institute is a weeklong session held during the summer.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., pp. 78–79.

[16] Ibid., p. 79.

[17] Ibid., p. 54.

[18] Ibid., p. 58.

[19] Linda Peterson, Transcript 2, pp. 303–04.

[20] Ibid., p. 304.

[21] Montana School Boards Association, The Bulletin, April 1998, pp. 1, 5. Note that the Montana School Boards Association failed to provide the Rocky Mountain Regional Office (RMRO), U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, a copy of its directory of members of Montana School Boards, after requests were made in writing and in person by RMRO staff.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Office of Public Instruction, Montana Statewide Summary, 1994–95 Student Assessment Rule 10.56.101, ARM, Mar. 28, 1996. The scores are reported annually to the Office of Public Instruction, with the fall report in the following school year. Ibid.

[24] Ibid. School districts choose from five norm-referenced standardized tests, with the most widely used being the Iowa Test of Basic Skills taken by 40.9 percent of the students. Ibid.

[25] Office of Public Instruction, Facts about Montana Education, July 1996. National Assessment of Educational Progress is an assessment tool used by OPI.

[26] Ibid. SAT: Montana verbal score 473, national score 428; Montana math score 536, national score 482. ACT: Montana score 21.8 and national score 20.8. Ibid.

[27] Office of Public Instruction, 1994–95 Montana Dropout Information, November 1996, p. 4.

[28] Lynn Hinch, Transcript 1, p. 57.

[29] Ibid., p. 59.

[30] Ibid., p. 60.

[31] Ibid., p. 61.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., p. 55.

[34] Ibid., p. 63.

[35] Ibid., p. 79.

[36] Ibid., p. 80.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Office of Public Instruction, Web site <www.metnet.state.mt.us/Mont>, Mar. 24, 2000.

[39] Linda Peterson, Transcript 2, p. 315.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., pp. 315–16. OPI received $350,000 to begin the process. OPI was actually carrying out the concept of Project Excellence 10 years ago, and it would be a restart of a former process. Adequate Yearly Progress, a component of the Title I program, examines students at the fourth, eighth, and 11th grade levels. These programs operate over a 10-year period.

[42] Ibid., p. 316.

[43] Board of Public Education, Goals and Objectives, 1996–1997.

[44] Wayne Buchanan, Transcript 1, pp. 45–46.

[45] Ibid., p. 46.

[46] Ibid., pp. 46–47.

[47] Ibid., p. 47.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid., pp. 47–48.

[50] Ibid., p. 48.

[51] Ibid., p. 73.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid., p. 61.

[54] Ibid., pp. 61–62.

[55] Ibid., p. 62.

[56] Ibid., pp. 62–63.

[57] Joyce Silverthorne, Transcript 2, p. 306.

[58] Ibid., p. 308.

[59] Ibid., p. 307.

[60] Ibid., pp. 307–08.

[61] Ibid., p. 308.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Wayne Buchanan, Transcript 1, p. 71.

[64] Ibid., p. 72.

[65] Ibid., p. 76.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid., p. 77.

[68] Joyce Silverthorne, Transcript 2, p. 308.

[69] Ibid., p. 309.

[70] Ibid., p. 318.

[71] Tribal Nations of Montana, a handbook for legislators, March 1995, p. 75.

[72] Ellen Swaney, Transcript 1, p. 37.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Ibid., pp. 37–38.

[75] Ibid., p. 40.

[76] Ibid., p. 39. Figures are based on 1996–97 fall school year enrollment. Ibid.

[77] Ibid.

[78] Ibid., p. 40.

[79] Joan Hurdle, member, Legislative Committee on Indian Affairs, Transcript 1, p. 5.

[80] Montana Legislative Services Division, To Promote a Better Understanding: The 1995–96 Activities of the Committee on Indian Affairs, December 1996, p. 13 (hereafter cited as Committee on Indian Affairs Report).

[81] Joan Hurdle, Transcript 1, pp. 9–10. The return rate for these surveys was 77 percent. Ibid., p. 10.

[82] Committee on Indian Affairs Report, p. 14.

[83] Joan Hurdle, Transcript 1, p. 9.

[84] Office of Public Instruction, Facts about Montana Education, July 1996.

[85] Committee on Indian Affairs Report, p. 18.

[86] Ibid., p. 14.

[87] Ibid.

[88] Joan Hurdle, Transcript 1, p. 9.

[89] Committee on Indian Affairs Report, pp. 18–19.

[90] Ibid., pp. 21–22.

[91] Joan Hurdle, Transcript 1, p. 10.

[92] Ibid.

[93] Ibid., pp. 10–11.

[94] Ibid., p. 12.

[95] Ibid.

[96] Ibid., p. 27.

[97] Ibid.

[98] Montana Code Annotated, 90-11-101.

[99] Ibid. The Office of Indian Affairs is administratively attached to the governor’s office. Ibid.

[100] Wyman McDonald, Transcript 2, p. 310. In 1951, the Montana Legislature created the position of coordinator of Indian affairs in recognition of the need to provide a way for Native Americans to communicate with state government. The coordinator serves as a spokesperson for Indian tribes and helps them work with state agencies. Source: Tribal Nations of Montana, a handbook for legislators, March 1995, p. 13. Mr. McDonald resigned from his position in December 1999.

[101] Ibid., p. 312.

[102] Ibid., pp. 311–12.

[103] David Dunbar, Transcript 2, p. 20. Mr. Dunbar has extensive experience in Indian education issues. He has worked with tribes in Montana for many years, and was general counsel for the National Congress of American Indians and law clerk for the Native American Rights Fund. Ibid., p. 21.

[104] Ibid., p. 22. By law, public schools have an obligation to educate students who have difficulty with English.

[105] Ibid. This requirement is the result of the 1976 Supreme Court case, Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974). The Court upheld the validity of federal agency regulations promulgated under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 specifically addressing educational issues relating to national origin minority students.

[106] Ibid. The Office for Civil Rights assesses and identifies affected students and evaluates the service delivery mechanism school districts have in place.

[107] Ibid., p. 23.

[108] Ibid. These are constitutional guarantees under Title VI, ruled on by the Supreme Court. Ibid.

[109] Ibid., pp. 49–50. Disparate treatment is intentional discrimination. Disparate impact can be unintentional. Ibid., p. 49.

[110] Ibid., pp. 26–27.

[111] Ibid., p. 27. Mr. Dunbar, no more than six months earlier, had spoken with several individuals on the Flathead Reservation concerning discipline. Ibid.

[112] Ibid., p. 31. Mr. Dunbar said that OCR has a structured approach as the agency gathers information and evidence during the investigative process. Sometimes a factual basis cannot be established because the school district does not keep records. When this is the case, OCR requires the district to maintain records and then monitors the school for several years to ensure that students are being treated equally. Ibid.

[113] Ibid., p. 28.

[114] Ibid., p. 50.

[115] Ibid., p. 52. Requirements for school districts are contained in the assurances that they sign when they receive grant monies, as well as federal dollars. Those individuals who have dealt with federal contracts are aware that there is an assurance that is normally signed off on by the top official of the district. Ibid.

[116] Ibid., p. 53.

[117] Ibid., p. 54.

[118] Ibid., pp. 54–55. Areas of this nature are often politically motivated, as well as racially motivated, and they are very hard to prove. Ibid., p. 55.

[119] Ibid., p. 55.

[120] Gerald Brown, Transcript 2, p. 35. The center is funded as a Desegregation Assistance Center under Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. There are 10 Desegregation Assistance Centers throughout the United States.

[121] Ibid.

[122] Ibid., p. 36. Those school districts that have been cited by OCR get priority. Ibid.

[123] Ibid. For protection of privacy, Mr. Brown could not identify or give testimony about specific school districts that his office was servicing, but he did confirm that a number of school districts in Montana were being assisted. Services are offered without charge to school districts. Ibid., p. 38.

[124] Ibid., p. 39. Even when schools have in place comprehensive plans or equitable programs, problems still arise.

[125] Ibid., p. 41. The center collaborates with other federally funded service providers.

[126] Ibid., p. 45. Mr. Brown was referring to the Ronan public schools, which are located on the Flathead Reservation.

[127] Ibid., p. 46.

[128] Ibid., p. 47.

[129] Ibid.