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MERCER: Regents want position focused on American Indian students

PIERRE — The state Board of Regents wants the Legislature to earmark $65,000 annually for a new position. It will be dedicated to American Bob Mercer, Capitol CorrespondentIndian education and outreach.

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The legislation, House Bill 1020, is pre-filed in advance of the 2014 session that begins Tuesday. It might be the most important bill that lawmakers will consider this year.

The position’s duties will be “focused on educating American Indian high school students and their families about becoming college ready and navigating college application and admission processes.”

This is a truly necessary step. We have an enormous cultural disparity.

American Indian people comprise about 10 percent of the population in the state. But American Indian students comprise 3 percent of enrollments at the state universities.

Those numbers show we aren’t doing this correctly.

We have too few students coming through our K-12 schools in many communities. We have too few students coming through our technical institutes, colleges and universities to meet employment needs.

The governor and the Legislature in separate ways have turned more attention to workforce development.

This position can be a step in that effort. We have an achievement gap in our K-12 schools.

Year after year, results show American Indian students as a whole performing significantly below white students as a whole.

Those numbers show little to no progress overall, despite many teachers and aides trying very hard.

We have enormous problems with poverty, broken homes, joblessness, hunger, remoteness, substance abuse, crime and school staffing.

Adding one position in the Board of Regents central office can’t fix any of that.

The same has been true at the state Department of Education. There has been a revolving door in its office of Indian education.

The Daugaard administration needs to review, reorganize and develop a clear strategy on better education for Indian students — and get the Legislature’s coordinated support.

Millions of dollars from the federal government wash through the state department without accountability for results.

The gaps in South Dakota are wide, even in state government. Three small examples:

The Legislature’s state-tribal relations committee doesn’t focus on Indian education.

The state Board of Education doesn’t schedule updates from the state secretary of tribal relations.

Tribal college leaders don’t sit down with the regents or the state Board of Education. Those boards don’t visit tribal colleges.

The regents through their central staff and leaders at the six universities have increased emphasis on recruitment and retention of Indian students in recent years. The report “Like Two Different Worlds” was delivered at the Dec. 4 board meeting.

The new request to the Legislature might seem duplicative.

South Dakota through the state Department of Education participates in the federally funded College Access program helping students and families.

But one more person alone can’t reach all the families on all nine reservations and all the families in between.

The regents are serious about addressing the enrollment gap at the universities. This position is one small piece in the attempt.

We spend considerable amounts of money on research at our state universities. A doctorate-level research program in Indian education would be a serious step in addressing South Dakota’s biggest problem.