With Democrats ruling the statehouse, Indian education issues are suddenly receiving more attention in Helena.
Proposals to boost curricula with Native history and culture, improve graduation rates and pump more money into tribal colleges are all being considered.
One bill by Rep. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, would authorize school districts to adopt Indian hiring preferences for most positions. Proponents say such preferences would create more positive role models for tribal students, whose dropout rates hover at 50 percent.
State figures show 11 percent of public school students are Indian, but less than 3 percent of teachers share the same descent. Indians, says Rep. Carol Juneau, D-Browning, “need to see themselves reflected in their school.”
“Is this the silver bullet that will solve everything?” Wanzenried asks. “It will not. This is just one part of a very complex problem.”
Bob Boyer, Missoula County School District’s only Indian teacher, agrees. While the Big Sky High School instructor wants more Indians in the profession, he says increasing pay and improving curricula so they meet student needs are other critical pieces of the puzzle.
Preferences, he says, should ideally be based on competence, not race, because effectiveness should be far more important than skin color.
“I’m just a guy who has tribal heritage who happens to be teaching English,” Boyer says. “I don’t think I’m teaching in Missoula because I’m an Indian. The key is getting good, quality teachers, no matter who they are. That’s where we should be.”
According to Boyer, “the issue is poverty, not culture.”
“That’s why you have a 50 percent dropout rate. Our failing schools aren’t just due to poor Indian people. There are a lot of poor white folks out there, too. Part of the dialogue is being missed here.”
Boyer adds, however, that he doesn’t want to be a killjoy.
“I’m pleased the Legislature is focusing on it,” he says. “But Hmong kids are successful, and they don’t have a lot of Hmong teachers. So what is it?”