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Twin-City Indian Coalition Lobbies for School Autonomy

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A coalition of Native American parents in Minnesota is lobbying for an Indian-controlled public school or school district that would serve Indians living in Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Members of the Coalition for Indian Education say the successes found among Indian-controlled schools on reservation lands can be replicated in the Twin Cities, where a high proportion of the state's Indians live.

A state lawmaker who supports the proposal was set to introduce a bill this week calling for the establishment of an Indian-majority4council to study ways that the state can grant Indians greater authority over the public schools their children attend.

"Indian children in the metropolitan area are not being challenged to their potential," says state Senator Donna Peterson, a Minneapolis Democrat who is sponsoring the bill.

"We know they do better in schools outside the metropolitan area," she adds, "and the key factor seems to be Indian families having some say or control over what is happening in school."

Self-Determination Goal

Supporters of the plan say it is a logical extension of the movement toward Indian self-determination that has guided federal policy on Indian education since 1975.

Nine of the state's 11 tribal councils have passed resolutions supporting the plan, and it has gained the backing of two state-board members and other influential policymakers.

But some fear that the state will face a lawsuit if it creates or funds a separate Indian school district, on the grounds that "separate but equal" schools are prohibited by the state and federal constitutions.

Richard R. Green, superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, and Will Antell, director of the state equal educational opportunities section, are among those who have anel10lnounced their opposition to the plan, saying it would impair the ability of Indians to function in a pluralistic society.

The plan's supporters acknowledge that it raises unanswered legal questions, but they point out that Indians enjoy a unique status under the federal constitution.

"Desegregation is based on black children's needs, not Indian children's needs," says Rosemary A. Christensen, a Chippewa Indian who is director of Indian education for the Minneapolis school system and a member of the Coalition for Indian Education.

She and others argue that the dispersal of Indian students under ur4ban desegregation plans is one factor in their low academic performance.

Native American students as a group rank at or near the bottom on virtually every performance indicator used in Minneapolis, Ms. Christensen says. The annual dropout rate among the approximately 3,000 Indian students in the district, for example, is 17 percent.

The council proposed in Senator Peterson's bill is expected to research the legal questions surrounding the proposal, including whether Indians could be exempted from state desegregation guidelines by being classified as a political rather than an ethnic group.

Precedents on Reservations

Precedents for the establishment of Indian-controlled, publicly funded schools exist, but only on reservation lands, not in an urban area, according to Michael Gross, a Santa Fe, N.M., lawyer who has been hired as a consultant by the coalition.

A 1969 report by a U.S. Senate subcommittee on Indian affairs concluded, says Mr. Gross, that "the abysmal state of Indian education in the nation was primarily caused by the absence of actual and legal control by Indian people."

That report, he adds, served as the stimulus for the Indian Self-Determination Act of 1975, under which the Bureau of Indian Affairs was directed to turn over their schools to tribal control.

Mr. Gross has since helped to create several Indian-controlled school districts in other states. In most cases, he says, the districts have "reduced their dropout rates enormously."

"Indian kids need to feel that the programs are part of their own community, culturally, linguistically, and politically," he argues.

The impetus for the Minnesota proposal came from parents of Indian children enrolled in the district's 10-year-old summer-school program for Indian children.

Indian parents have become deeply involved in the summer-school program, says Ms. Christensen, partly because it removes barriers to their participation, such as offering day care for younger siblings.

The participation of parents lent the program an "Indian ambience" that has been the key ingredient in its success, she says.

A group of these parents formed the Coalition for Indian Education, she adds, and "asked very simply to have the summer school year-round."

"We should have insisted on Indian-controlled schooling 200 years ago," she contends, adding that an emerging Indian middle class is only now making it possible.

The proposals that would be examined by Senator Peterson's commission range from a state-funded, Indian-controlled boarding school to an independent Indian school district that would be carved out of existing districts.

Ruth Randall, state commissioner of education, says she has not taken a position on the proposal but is familiar with the arguments on both sides.

Indians she spoke with at a Minnesota Chippewa tribal dinner last week were divided in their reaction, she says, "but certainly there were more there that were in favor of the study."

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