Alternative schools could be created on Indian reservations to educate students who are having a hard time in traditional schools under a plan introduced by State. Sen. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder.
The senator said the plan, which immediately drew fire from MEA-MFT, the union representing most school workers in Montana, would help reduce the dropout rate that is very high on Indian reservations.
Windy Boy’s district includes three of Montana’s seven Native reservations.
Windy Boy said a superintendent at one of the school districts in his district told him that 26 students had been expelled from school one year.
Windy Boy said that under traditional rules, these expelled students will usually go to a neighboring school district that offers the same curriculum and the same method of teaching that didn’t work for the student in the first place.
Instead, he said, the alternative school would offer extensive training in native languages. The alternative school would work with state, federal and private agencies that deal with drug abuse, alcohol problems or mental illness that may be plaguing the student.
The alternative schools would be state-funded and would be created by tribes or private groups, he said.
They would operate under the umbrella of a local district, but with substantial autonomy, Windy Boy’s legislation reads.
The state said last year that one-quarter of the state’s schools are falling behind the others in student retention, Windy Boy said. Many of those, he said, are reservation schools.
Windy Boy said he called them alternative schools because "charter school is a dirty word down here.”
Windy Boy’s enthusiasm for the alternative schools was not shared by Eric Fever, president of MEA-MFT.
Programs such as the alternative schools Windy Boy seeks are already available under the present structure, he said.
“Sen. Windy Boy would be better off working with local schools to create solutions to problems in the schools,” he said.
Many reservations already have programs similar to the alternative schools, except they operate under the jurisdiction of the local school districts.
And problems of high dropout rates are not unique to reservation schools, he said. Many other schools face similar problems.
He said reservation schools have a variety of ways of offering alternative forms of education, he said. Some have native language immersion school, he said.
Windy Boy’s legislation will face serious constitutional questions, Fever predicted.
The Montana Constitution demands public accountability, and he questioned whether public money going to a non-public organization could pass constitutional muster.
If people have questions, comments or complaints about public schools, they can see school administrators or school board members.
There is no such avenue available for people with comments on charter schools, he said.
Windy Boy said his support for the alternative schools creates a political problem for him.
Most of the support for charter schools in the Legislature comes from Republicans, he said.
Democrats have been pretty united in their opposition.
Many Republicans have also been skeptical of charter schools, and thus far they have blocked any effort to publicly fund such schools.
But Windy Boy noted that he and State Sen. Kris Hansen, R-Havre, a supporter of some charter school legislation, sit on the Senate Education Committee, which will have to review the bill.
Windy Boy said the Native American caucus in the Legislature has been cool to the idea of charter schools, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau, the state‘s highest Native American election official, is a strong opponent of charter schools.