Lawmakers have yet to bridge the partisan divide on school
funding issues, but the House of Representatives showed Monday that Republicans and Democrats can
work together on tough policy issues.
Facing opposition from a group of lawmakers concerned the
proposal would lead to racial segregation, a bipartisan contingent coalesced to
pass legislation allowing the state to create a pilot charter school designed
to boost academic outcomes for American Indian students. The plan, found in Senate Bill 63, moved
to the governor’s desk on a 49-20 vote.
The legislation allows the state to authorize and oversee a
publicly funded private school, provided South
Dakota is chosen from the pool of 41 states vying for a
federal Race to the Top grants. Authorized by the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act, the competition allows the U.S. Department of Education to
hand out more than $4 billion to states that initiate education reforms.
On Monday, all the typical policy issues related to charter
schools – privatization, school choice, funding – took a back seat to race.
Rep. Noel Hammiel, R-Mitchell, referenced landmark U.S
Supreme Court cases Plessy vs. Ferguson
and Brown vs. Board of Education during
his five-minute speech against SB 63. He told lawmakers that starting a charter
school for American Indian students would amount to racial segregation.
“I don’t know if transporting American Indian kids from
around the state to a central location is a good idea,” he said. “I have some
concerns about that.”
Rep. Hammiel also cited a recent UCLA study that found that charter school enrollment lacks diversity and is split along economic lines. He
cautioned lawmakers against endorsing legislation that he said may make it
tougher to bridge the state’s racial divides.
The bill’s supporters acknowledged sharing concerns about
segregation. But rather than using race as a reason to vote against the
measure, proponents instead focused on the what they said were glaring achievement gaps between
American Indian students and their peers.
“What we are doing now for our children on the reservations
is not working,” said Rep. Oran Sorensen, D-Dell Rapids. “Maybe we need to have
the courage to go one step further.”
The law enabling the creation of the state-run school is
contingent upon receiving the federal grant. According to the federal education
department, South Dakota
can receive up to $75 million if the state’s plan is chosen. South Dakota submitted its application last
February, and the U.S. Department of Education will likely announce its first
round of selections sometime this week.
South Dakota Education Secretary Tom Oster has openly
acknowledged that he doesn’t believe the state will receive the funding.
If the state is awarded the grant, the funds will be used to
establish a secondary school that gives enrollment priority to students from
federally recognized American Indian tribes. The facility will offer
instruction focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The
campus will also feature dormitory housing and offer enough classes to allow
students to complete two years of college.
The bill now moves onto the governor, who has already given
his blessing to the project.