Equal Educational Opportunity for Native American Students in Montana Public Schools

Chapter 6

 Findings and Recommendations

A number of education initiatives in Montana have been put into place over the course of 40 years, beginning in 1969 with the Montana State Legislature establishing a commission to determine if the Montana Constitution was serving citizens’ needs.[1] The following year, the Montana Constitutional Convention Commission prepared Study No. 17, which addressed among other topics equal educational opportunity for Native Americans, particularly the protection of their cultural integrity.[2] That study concluded that Montana had obligations to: 

In 1972, a significant education initiative took place with the adoption of article X, for inclusion into Montana’s Constitution. Article X acknowledged that the state of Montana recognized Native Americans and their cultural heritage, and that it was committed to preserving their cultural integrity.[4] Montanans, Indian and non-Indian, viewed article X as a giant step toward the reality that Indian children could receive an equal education.

The 1973 Indian Studies Law was initiated to ensure that every Montana teacher had an understanding of and appreciation for Native Americans by requiring that teachers employed on or near an Indian reservation receive instruction in American Indian studies. In addition, affected school districts could only employ teachers who met the requirement.[5] The State Legislature encouraged public schools to include Indian history and culture in their curricula and also encouraged training programs to prepare teachers for instructing Indian children.[6]

State agencies also began to develop strategies to promote Indian education. In 1975, the State Board of Education adopted the Indian Culture Master Plan, a guide for institutions to begin meeting their obligations under the Indian Studies Law. That same year, the State Legislature created Native American Day, which invited people to observe the culture of Native Americans.

In 1984, more changes were made to improve the education of Indian children. The Board of Public Education adopted a policy statement on Indian education (still in effect today) reaffirming its commitment to Native Americans by providing for increased participation of Indian people in the planning, implementation, and administration of relevant educational services and programs under the authority of local school boards.[7]

The Board of Public Education supports the concepts of self-determination and educational excellence for Native Americans. It encourages:

In 1984, the Board of Public Education also established the Montana Advisory Council on Indian Education (MACIE), which consisted of delegates from all reservations and major Indian educational organizations to advise the Board of Public Education and the superintendent of public instruction in educational matters affecting Indian students.[9]

The 1990s saw several developments in Indian education in Montana. Among them was a position paper by Nancy Keenan, superintendent of public instruction, reaffirming her support of article X and a commitment to work closely with Indian people to increase the educational attainment level of Indian students.[10] Highlights of the position paper include:

Other initiatives during the decade included the 1991 A Plan for American Indian Education in Montana: Recommended Goals, a report defining needs, recommended goals, and an action plan developed from the input of tribal representatives and Indian people from across the state under the direction of the Office of Public Instruction and the Montana Advisory Council for Indian Education. The plan was directed to the governor, the Montana State Legislature, and those education entities responsible for Native American children in Montana public schools receiving a quality education.[12] In response to the 1991 plan, the state developed a statement of reaffirmation as demonstration of its commitment to correcting disparities in Indian education. Responsibility for the state’s constitutional commitment to the education of Indian people was vested in a consortium of agencies, including the State Board of Education, Board of Regents of Higher Education, Board of Public Education, Office of Public Instruction, and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education.[13]

As educators, community leaders, parents, and students continued to identify disparities in the education of Native American children in Montana, similar issues were brought to the forefront by state agencies themselves. Statistics from the Office of Public Instruction revealed that Indian children continued to represent the largest minority group in the state’s public school system. An advisory committee to the Board of Public Education found that the racial balance between Native American students in grades K–12 in relation to Native American teachers in those same grades was disproportionate.[14] Further, the Office of Public Instruction reported in 1990 that only 1.9 percent of Montana’s K–12 public school teachers and 1.7 percent of Montana’s school administrators were Native American.[15] Recognizing the need to reduce these racial disparities, the Certification Standards and Practices Advisory Council to the Board of Public Education prepared a report on strategies for improving the recruitment and retention of minorities.[16] All these efforts were designed to change the face of Indian education in the state. But such concerns as high dropout rates and low achievement and test scores remained at the forefront.

In 1995, the Montana Legislature requested that its Committee on Indian Affairs study whether Montana public schools were in compliance with article X and assess the role of American Indian studies in the Montana Constitution. The Montana Advisory Committee is disappointed that the Committee on Indian Affairs did not make recommendations at the conclusion of its study, but chose instead to sponsor a bill designating the fourth Friday in September as American Indian Heritage Day, a symbolic gesture that had already been made on two previous occasions.

Because Indian children in Montana public schools continued to lag behind, several other pledges were made by state agencies between 1991 and 1995, but the lack of concrete action by the Legislature and state agencies resulted in additional attempts by educators, education advocates, and parents to push the Indian education agenda even further. In October 1995, parents and educators continued to discuss many unresolved concerns regarding Indian education in Montana and convened a statewide conference to voice their concerns.[17] The goal of the forum was to follow-up on and evaluate the progress of previous efforts by the State Legislature and other state agencies to reach the goals and recommendations outlined in the 1991 A Plan for American Indian Education in Montana: Recommended Goals. Follow-up with the governor and other state agencies, as recorded in a summary report, found that “although many recommendations made by the tribes in 1990 have been accepted and acted upon by state education leaders, there were still many instances where tremendous improvement was needed to allow Indian students to matriculate successfully through the Montana education system.”[18] That report, Montana Forum for Effective Education of American Indian Students: Final Report, concluded that student dropout rates were too high, Indian children had low academic achievement, there was a lack of Indian-related curriculum, Indian students had inadequate skills to compete, and there were few positive role models such as Indian teachers and administrators for Indian students.[19] One recommendation was to continue to work on curriculum and involve Indian people in the process.

In November 1995, the Board of Public Education (supported unanimously by Montana tribes) approved a certification titled “Class 7 American Indian Language and Culture Specialist” to teach Native American language.[20] The Class 7 certificate was put in place to ensure quality Native language instruction for Montana’s children.

The 1997 Montana Legislative Session showed reluctance on the part of state lawmakers to pass substantive legislation addressing education of Indian children. The only action taken regarding Indian people was the governor signing into law the American Indian Heritage Day.

Montana legislative sessions are held in odd years, and once again during the 1999 session, Indian education was debated. State legislators introduced House Bill No. 528, which was subsequently adopted during the 1999 Legislative Session. The approval of House Bill No. 528 was the most recent effort to bring about change in evaluating how the state addressed Indian education. The bill was enacted to implement article X, section 1, subsection 2, of the Montana Constitution regarding the state’s recognition of the distinct and unique cultural heritage of Native Americans and the state’s commitment to establish educational goals that would preserve the cultural integrity of Native Americans.[21] Within the bill’s language, state legislators acknowledged that:

The Committee on Indian Affairs report revealed that despite the constitution’s educational guarantees, many school districts and schools, including those adjacent to Montana’s seven Indian reservations, had no policy or information in their school curricula recognizing the cultural heritage of American Indians and that the small number of Indian teachers and administrators in public schools resulted in Indian students with no role models and a lack of cultural awareness and sensitivity among non-Indian students; and that the history of Montana and the current problems of the state cannot be adequately understood and the problems cannot be addressed unless both Indians and non-Indians have an understanding of the history, culture, and contemporary contributions of Montana’s Indian people.[22]

Montana tribes are hopeful that through the passage of House Bill No. 528 they will have the opportunity to develop materials and curriculum to improve the achievement of Indian students.

In September 1999, Governor Racicot created a committee made up of the Board of Public Education and the Board of Regents to make recommendations for the implementation of House Bill No. 528, including suggestions concerning the instruction of Montana and Native American history. An important part of the committee’s work was to develop a concrete list of approaches to implement House Bill No. 528 and ensure that the intent of article X would be met. The committee submitted its report with recommendations to the Montana Board of Education. The recommendations, approved by the board on March 22, 2000, state that each Montana educational agency (Board of Public Education, Office of Public Instruction, Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education, and Board of Regents) will develop a policy statement; implement a system to periodically monitor and evaluate its progress toward the implementation of House Bill No. 528; improve educational standards and resources; expand professional development and other educational opportunity so that administrators, faculty, staff, and students will have a better understanding of Native American culture and history; and expand the recruitment and retention of Native American educators and students.[23]

Despite several decades of state legislation, education initiatives, and other attempts to address the education of Indian children in Montana, Native American parents, grandparents, and students continue to wait eagerly for true equity in education.

The concerns expressed by many individuals who made presentations before the Montana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights during fact-finding meetings held in Billings and Missoula brought forth a wealth of information concerning the state of Native American children in Montana public schools. Statistics, personal viewpoints, teaching experiences, and educational concerns were shared by representatives of federal, state, tribal, educational, and private/community organizations, and students and parents.

There has been much rhetoric, many pronouncements, and considerable effort by the state of Montana to address issues involving Indian education. Despite all this activity, it appears to the Montana Advisory Committee that results have been negligible. Indian children still drop out of school too frequently, and often before high school; their achievement levels are lower; and their graduation rates and advancement to higher education wholly inadequate.

One significant problem is the lack of central accountability for achieving the constitutional mandate for ensuring equal education for Native Americans. In addition to the Legislature, there are numerous state agencies, boards, and institutions with some responsibility for the education of Montana’s students. But roles and functions are not always clearly defined among these various entities. This problem is compounded by the emphasis on “local control,” which means that individual school districts have wide latitude to execute their own priorities and policies. While there may well be certain advantages to this, it also has the effect of diffusing and dividing accountability for ensuring equal educational opportunities. In effect, each school district is responsible for educating all of its students. However, to ensure accountability, there must be a central governing body with authority to require compliance with the constitutional mandate on a statewide basis. Otherwise, the language of the constitution (and all the other plans and initiatives) might offer nothing more than a hollow promise.

The Advisory Committee strongly believes that when it comes to constitutional and civil rights protections, the state of Montana must devise a means for enforcing these. All the good intentions in the world cannot substitute for establishing authority and accountability within state government to ensure that Native American children receive equal education. This task cannot be delegated but must be exercised by the state of Montana through appropriate legislative actions that confer necessary powers and authorities and hold appropriate officials accountable for their performance. In this manner alone will progress be possible in achieving the goal of equal education in the state of Montana.

The Montana Advisory Committee presents the following findings and recommendations:


1.  Indian children in Montana public schools are in a crisis situation, as evidenced by disparities in education, including dropout rates that are double those of non-Indian students, low achievement levels and test scores, and few high school graduates with little advancement to higher education.

2.  Montana Indians and non-Indians alike are adversely affected by the public education system’s failure to educate all of its students.

3.  Although the state of Montana has made numerous affirmations and other pronouncements concerning Indian education, those efforts have not reaped tangible outcomes, and as a result the state has failed to meet its obligation with regard to Indian education.

4.  Indian and non-Indian children, as well as teachers and administrators, are harmed by public education’s failure to consistently incorporate Indian issues in the curriculum.

5.  Teachers and administrators do not receive adequate information about Indian issues in their professional course of study, and therefore cannot share Indian history and culture in their classes in the public schools. The teaching of Indian history and culture should begin in kindergarten and continue through high school. Indian studies should be integrated throughout the curriculum and should be an integral part of the accreditation requirements, not an optional offering.

6.  There is not enough knowledge of and use of practical projects and programs that will work for Indian children. Better ways of identifying and implementing nonmandated resources such as technical assistance from agencies and individuals who can give helpful and experienced guidance have not been sufficiently utilized.


The Montana Advisory Committee believes that the various education entities are sincere about their goal to guarantee equal educational opportunities for Native American children in Montana public schools. The Advisory Committee also believes that the laws, studies, programs, and other efforts in place have provided some limited benefits to Native American children. However, there need to be concrete, numerical goals with specific timetables established to move Indian education in Montana forward. Indian children continue to drop out of school at a disproportionate rate. Indian children in Montana public schools continue to have low achievement scores. A significant number of Indian children do not graduate from high school. Few Indian children attend college. Families of Indian children are unable to see a bright future for their children. All too often, Indian children in Montana public schools are not excited about their own future or the future of their friends and relatives. The Montana Advisory Committee makes the following recommendations:

1.  Require certified teachers in Montana to complete a human relations course specific to Native American studies and the protection of their unique culture. Through this course, teachers could learn how to motivate, teach, guide, challenge, and better interact with Native American students and peers who are different from them. They could also learn how to incorporate Indian culture into daily lesson plans and special projects. In addition, the number of Indian history and culture classes in the public schools should be increased.

2.  Recruit more Native Americans as teachers and administrators in the public school system. Montana’s Indian children need positive role models. The state of Montana, Board of Public Education, Office of Public Instruction, and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education must come together and develop a strategy to increase the number of Native American educators. An action plan with goals and timetables should be developed without delay to accomplish this. These agencies must insist that school districts and schools embrace the same objective. Further, there appears to be a resource of Native American individuals already working in schools who have not had an opportunity to use their education, knowledge, and skills to their fullest potential.

3.  Establish in each school a community ombudsman as a link between Native American parents, the Indian community, and schools. Communication among parents, teachers, and schools needs to improve. Many parents and educators have observed that a friendly school environment creates an opportunity for children to receive a better education. The community ombudsman should be of Native American descent, and priority should be placed on establishing these relationships in schools with high Native American student enrollment. Another option is utilization of tribal education coordinators to work closely with schools and school districts where there are many Indian students.

4.  Improve tracking and follow-up procedures and policies between schools and school districts on the reservation and those in nearby cities with regard to Native American students. There is a great deal of mobility by students between the reservation and off-reservation communities. Measures need to be taken to prevent the destructive gaps in student attendance and performance created by this mobility.

5.  Develop curriculum and database information. Appropriate curriculum in the schools is needed for all children to learn. In keeping with the state’s recognition and appreciation of the heritage of Native Americans in the state, Indian studies should be an integral part of the standard curriculum in the public schools, mandated by the Office of Public Instruction. Although the Office of Public Instruction and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education maintain data on student enrollment, completion rates, and other information, more detailed statistics need to be maintained to obtain an accurate description of student populations and their achievement. Schools and school districts must be held accountable for the students they are mandated by law to educate. Schools and school districts should maintain and make public data on dropout rates, discipline, achievement scores, and graduation.

6.  State of Montana take a leadership role to further spell out the intent of its constitutional language. The recommendations approved by the Board of Education concerning House Bill No. 528 should be monitored closely. Timetables should be established and adhered to. Accountability must be established.

7. Better coordination between schools and institutions of higher education. The university system should increase cooperation and work closely with local school districts, as well as tribes, to increase the number of Indian students attending college.

8.  Increased role of tribal government. Tribal governments in Montana must exercise a leadership role in promoting major reforms in the state’s education system to ensure that Native American children are provided with adequate tools, knowledge, and experience to function successfully in today’s society. The future of Native American leadership is dependent on the quality of education these students receive.

9.  Federal civil rights enforcement. The Advisory Committee urges that the federal civil rights enforcement agencies responsible for ensuring adherence by school districts with federal equal education mandates (U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Justice) increase their monitoring and compliance activities in Montana. Compliance reviews of selected districts with significant Native American enrollment should be undertaken promptly.

[1] See chapter 1 above.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid. This requirement was amended, through legislation in 1979, prior to ever taking effect.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.; appendix B.

[8] Ibid., appendix B.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., appendix C.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid., appendix D.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., appendix G; House Bill No. 528 repealed sections 20-4-211, 20-4-212, 20-4-213, and 20-4-214, Montana Codes Annotated; and provided an immediate effective date.

[22] Ibid. 1999 Montana Legislature, House Bill No. 528.

[23] Ibid., appendix H. House Bill No. 528, Board of Education Report and Recommendations, approved Mar. 22, 2000.