Oceti Sakowin schools bill fails in South Dakota House committee

For the third year in a row, a bill to set-up native-focused charter schools in South Dakota has gained support in the Legislature. But Senate Bill 139 came up three votes short on Wednesday morning after emotional testimony.

South Dakota Senate Minority Leader Troy Heinert, D-Mission, turns to answer a question from a lawmaker during his pitching for an Indigenous community-based school bill. The House Education committee voted 8-4 to send the bill to the 41st day -- a procedural move that effectively kills the bill.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

PIERRE, S.D. — For the third year in a row a bill to establish ostensibly native charter schools achieved momentum in the South Dakota Legislature.

And for the third year in a row, the measure has still come up short.

The House Education Committee culminated nearly two hours of emotional testimony in favor of establishing two Oceti Sakowin community-based schools in the state by voting 8-4 to send Senate Bill 139 to the 41st day, effectively killing the measure.

Rep. Will Mortenson, R-Pierre, expressed desire for the idea of the program, but hesitation about logistics, as worked out in the bill's text.

"I'm going to be very painfully resisting this motion," said Mortenson, prior to a "do-pass" motion that failed. "I believe that there are mechanisms in law to do this [Indigenous community-based schools] that are a little bit less clunky."


Earlier in the morning, prime sponsor Sen. Troy Heinert, a Democrat from Mission on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, told the committee that he'd seen as a teacher the success of a model of education embracing traditional Lakota values, language and activities.

Heinert rejected the argument — echoed by representatives for the school boards and school administrators and teachers — that Oceti Sakowin schools could be erected under current law.

"If they could do this already, if it was happening, would we still be here?" asked Heinert.

He asked the committee to come visit him on Rosebud before offering alternatives: "Look at the despair, and then come tell me you have a better idea."

The public viewing the debate over an Oceti Sakowin schools bill in the House Education committee on Wednesday, March 2, 2022.
Christopher Vondracek / Forum News Service

The statistics showing gaps in learning between native and non-native children in South Dakota are well-established for both bill proponents and opponents. Heinert said Lakota children are at about "a quarter" of the proficiency level of non-native children in subjects ranging from math to science to social studies.

But bill opponents expressed concern about the new, proposed model adequately addressing academic learning. When Rep. Lana Greenfield, R-Doland, asked bill proponents what a "typical" day would look like, she was unhappy with the response.

"I didn't hear anything about math, science, social studies, anything that showed me a solid format where scores would improve," said Greenfield.

Rep. Sue Peterson, R-Sioux Falls, also expressed concern about testimony from Sarah White, executive director with the South Dakota Education Equity Coalition and resident of Rapid City. White had said she imagined schools setting up a "decolonized" space for kids.


"I'm hearing words like 'equity' and 'decolonization' and those types of activist, charged words," said Peterson, skeptically, in explaining why she would vote against the proposal.

The bill also drew criticism from public school organizations, who pointed to vagueness in the bill's text on how the new schools would draw federal, state, and local funds through the public districts but maintain independence.

"We've never seen a contract," said Wade Pogany, representing the Associated School Boards of South Dakota. "If you vote for this bill, now you have two school boards, two competing school boards."

An amendment to clarify the responsibility for special needs children appeared to give the measure new life and was approved. But the committee ultimately voted the amended bill down.

As of Wednesday at noon, it appeared unlikely the bill's supporters would have the votes to "smoke-out" the measure in the full House, a term for resuscitating the bill on the House floor for consideration.

Christopher Vondracek is the South Dakota correspondent for Forum News Service. Contact Vondracek at , or follow him on Twitter: @ChrisVondracek .

The state's biggest political leaders have touted inbound migration, so-called "blue state refugees" who flooded South Dakota. But the biggest driver of partisan races this coming summer and fall appears to be a redistricting process, log-jamming Republicans in primaries and opening up new turf for Democrats.

Christopher Vondracek covers South Dakota news for Forum News Service. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @ChrisVondracek.
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